Inter-faith delegation signals determined Middle East hope

By agency reporter
January 2, 2010

An interfaith delegation’s recent visit to the Middle East could provide “a model and encouragement” for other Christians, Muslims and Jews to work together to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

That was one of the observations of the Rev Margaret G. Payne, bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Payne was one of 15 US Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who travelled between 16-23 December 2009 in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.

The trip was organized by the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative (NILI), an organisation of American faith group leaders which has spoken publicly about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

If more Christians, Jews and Muslims could work together for Middle East peace, their collective voice could influence governments, Bishop Payne said in an interview.

“This was a real witness to the joint work together of Christians, Muslims and Jews,” she declared. “Every place we went to visit, we went as representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths.”

According to a NILI news release, the visit included a week of praying together and meeting with Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians. Payne said the group had productive meetings with Israeli and Palestinian citizens, the US Ambassador to Israel, James B. Cunningham and Jordanian leaders, whom Payne said are active in the peace process.

“We met with some of the members of their parliament,” the ELCA bishop said. “They, too, mentioned that witnessing such a mixed delegation was unusual. To them, this was a sign of hope that there can be joint efforts toward peace.”

The interfaith delegation spent considerable time in discussion, sharing observations and perspectives with each other during the visit, she said. The leaders were united in their view that construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory should be frozen and that existing Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands be dismantled, she added.

“Even on the most emotional issues of refugees and Jerusalem, we believe most Palestinians understand that they will have to accept a negotiated solution regarding refugees that does not jeopardise the Jewish majority in Israel, and most Israelis understand that they will have to accept a negotiated solution regarding sharing Jerusalem that includes provision for both Israel and Palestine to have their capitals in Jerusalem,” commented Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president emeritus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in the NILI release.

“Of course, it is the parties themselves that must make the negotiated agreements for peace, but most people we met believe that active, fully engaged US leadership is essential to making that happen. We are united in support of such US leadership for peace,” said Dr Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, national director, Islamic Society of North America.

The delegation called for active, fair and firm US leadership in 2010 to restart negotiations for a two-state solution, involving an end to occupation and security for Israel and Palestine, the release said.

The release said that the religious leaders repeated NILI’s goal of building on the Arab Peace Initiative for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, including peace agreements between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon. NILI leaders who organised the trip said they will seek high level meetings with the Obama administration to offer their support for US leadership for peace.

NILI said the delegation was united in calling on the Obama administration and Congress to be catalysts, in cooperation with Egypt and other parties, for achieving “an effective, sustainable ceasefire.”

According to the news release, that includes international measures to prevent the resupply of rockets, for allowing the flow of humanitarian and economic assistance to the people of Gaza, for continuing efforts to improve the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to increase security and economic development, for further reducing the number of checkpoints and for freezing settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Other Christian leaders who made the trip represented the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), National Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. Other Jewish leaders represented the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Other Muslim leaders were with the Islamic Center of Southern Maryland, Georgetown University and the Council of Mosques, USA.

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