By Hanna Siniora
In a message that concluded two weeks of meetings of the Vatican Synod on the Middle East, the bishops declared that Israel should not use the biblical concept of a promised land or a chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or territorial claims in the West Bank. The statement also expressed the hope that a two state solution could be made a reality.
The Synod’s final statement said: “We have mediated in the situation of the holy city of Jerusalem. We are anxious about the unilateral initiatives that threaten its composition and risk to change its demographic balance. Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.” The Synod clergy took issue with Jews who use the Bible to justify settlements in the West Bank.
As illustrated above, religion constitutes a part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And since it is part of the problem, it also has to be part of the solution. The peaceful concept of coexistence in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, if properly spread and taught by the religious leaders from the three monotheistic faiths, is key to solving the conflict. It is of particular importance to solving the conflicts over holy places and can lead the way to an accommodation regarding the Jewish and Muslim sanctuaries in Jerusalem.
To date, religious leaders have preferred to remain on the sidelines. Previous timid attempts to deal with religious issues on a local and regional basis stemmed from a fear that religion would be exploited for political purposes in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To use religion in a positive way in this conflict is to tread on “virgin territory.”
The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land is an initiative consisting of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders, representing the formal religious institutions of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These leaders have been dedicating their efforts, since 2005, to prevent religion from being used as a source of conflict and encouraging its goals of justice, reconciliation and peace. They have made progress in establishing harmony and open lines of communication between the formal religious institutions in the Holy Land. They are currently, however, less visible to the public eye and have not been able to translate their work into wider public acceptance of tolerance and understanding.
In my opinion, religious leaders are the most credible body to spread the peaceful message that diverse religious narratives can coexist because they have the authority to interpret the holy books. Furthermore, religious leaders are not running for elections and are thus safe with their following and able to influence and tone down religious extremism and build harmonious relations. Each religion holds the potential to sow the seeds for a change in public mood amongst its faithful.
Religious leaders should be encouraged and supported in their efforts both to assume the responsibility of guiding the public towards peaceful coexistence and to play an active and confident role in shaping public opinion. They have to counter religious extremists and political leaders from using the Word of God for their own political ends, to perpetuate and inflame the conflict.
In our conflict, narratives diverge and too often lead to the delegitimising and demonising of the Other. At present, religion is used by those who demand sole ownership over the homeland and the holy places, instead of serving as a tool for reconciling and accepting the need to both share the land and respect the religious needs of the three faiths.
It is important to encourage and promote inter-faith encounters, both in the homeland and across the region. Such efforts are already taking place, involving the late Sheikh Sider from Hebron, Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem, and Bishop Younan of the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem. The Archbishop of Canterbury initiated contacts for the religious leaders in the region, which led to a meeting in Alexandria, attended by the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar of Egypt, leading Muslim clerics from Palestine, and the heads of several Christian Churches in Jerusalem. At this meeting, the participants signed the “Alexandria Declaration,” which clearly states that the various faiths that the leaders represent are opposed to violence and that each leader would look for ways to cooperate with others to prevent violence.
In Palestine, Dr. Mohammed Dajani is spreading the message of the Wasatia Movement. Wasatia in Islam is derived from the Holy Koran and means moderation, centrism and balance. Wasatia dedicates its message to broadening the knowledge of moderation in Islam, and applies it to society, educational institutions and political activism.
To date, religion has been more of a source of discord than a source of peace. The territorial and political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has led to the abuse of religious interpretations, rather than the cultivation of moderate attitudes towards the homeland and, in particular, the holy sites in Jerusalem. In our particular case, religious leaders must intensify their efforts to persuade their followers that God and His Word call for acceptance, understanding, balance and peace. Extremist voices are misinterpreting this message.
Hanna Siniora is publisher of The Jerusalem Times, chairman of the European Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.