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Religious leadership weighs modern faith

Flynn, Janice | Friday, October 28, 2005

American Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders emphasized that both understanding the narrative that originates “the other” and rejecting unilateral action are crucial to success in the Middle East, in a panel discussion on interreligious leadership in the Holy Land Wednesday.

“When Faiths Unite” kept with the spirit of the academic forum of faith in the modern world and featured three leaders from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East.

The initiative – formed in 2003 – includes 38 American religious leaders who endorse the current “road map” solution to the Middle East conflict and encourage the current U.S. administration to engage in creative, consistent leadership.

Gerard Powers, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, served as discussion moderator and praised the speakers for their “real courage” in collaborating over the divisive conflict. He urged speakers to explain the conflict’s relevance from their particular faiths and to offer insight into interreligious dialogue.

Ronald Young, a Protestant layman and national coordinator for the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, said the conflict threatens the continued presence of Christians in the Holy Land – which reverberates throughout the entire Christian world.

“Is it a surprise that Catholics here are angry if the water is cut off [in a Jerusalem Catholic church]?” he asked. “Or when a Lutheran Church is occupied by Israel troops in response to a Palestinian attack, is it any surprise that Lutherans are angry about this?”

Young cited the written assertion by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that no religion can approach the problem alone: “I think the fundamental question in this discussion is, ‘Do we believe it?'”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, introduced the narrative theme and said the 3,000-year importance of the Holy Land forms the crux of the Jewish narrative.

“You can’t have a discussion on issues without understanding the starting axioms and postulates in which people shape their world views, or people go by each other,” he said.

The conflict is so divisive that many interreligious coalitions in Washington refuse outright to address two topics – abortion and Middle East conflict, he said.

Saperstein called for collaborative action, not simply discussion.

From talking, he said, “good things happen, not transformative things, because people are still locked into their world view … but by doing together we can build more trust than talking together.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, president of the American Sufi Muslim Association, said that because nothing has been more divisive between the three religions, nothing pleads for more attention than an Arab-Israeli solution.

Rauf alluded to Jesus’ commandments to love God and neighbor – as well as the unalienable rights stated in the Declaration of Independence – to emphasize the common ethics and principles, what he called “small ‘r’ religion,” of all three faiths.

Like Saperstein, he insisted on a dedicated plan for peace.

“As Father Hesburgh said over dinner, ‘Waging peace is even more challenging than waging war.’ … Waging peace requires as much logistical planning as does waging war.”

Rauf gave a lecture earlier Wednesday on his new book “What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West.”

All three speakers reaffirmed signs of positive change in the Middle East with the present generation.

“One thing we tend to forget is that every 30 to 35 years a whole new generation comes into power … with a whole other worldview of how they should live,” Rauf said. “Our societies are constantly refiguring themselves.”

Young said 20 years ago, both sides came to peace talks “grudgingly,” while today reluctance has diminished.

Every Thursday night in Ramallah, Saperstein explained, Arab jazz musicians play with Israeli jazz musicians a club in front of a mixed crowd.

“It really gave you a sense of what peace could be like,” he said.

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the Center for Social Concerns, the Theology Department and its Program on Catholic Social Tradition and the Office of Campus Ministry.