In December, three interfaith leaders will travel to Israel.
They’ll get to explore what it means to be Christian, Jewish and Muslim in the Holy Land. In that sense, the trip is academic, worthy of its "Walking in the Footsteps of the Prophets" title from its sponsor, Nazareth College.
But the trip also is symbolic: The three are close friends even though they have very different outlooks and faiths.
"I hope it says volumes in terms of who we can be together as distinct religious entities who have deep friendship — not despite our differences but in celebration of those," said Sister of St. Joseph Susan Nowak, who will represent the Catholic and Christian perspective on the journey.
Sister Nowak is a professor and chair of the religious-studies department at Nazareth College and has a doctorate in religion. The local Jewish community will be represented by Isobel Goldman, community-relations director for Rochester’s Jewish Community Federation, who in 2006 helped establish the Brennan-Goldman Institute for Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, imam of the Islamic Center of Rochester and a professor of religious studies at Nazareth and executive director of the college’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, will represent the area’s Islamic community.
The three friends will be led by tour guide George Eisen, Nazareth College’s associate vice president for academic affairs and executive director of its Center for International Education. Eisen, who has doctorates in history and social psychology, is a native of Budapest, Hungary, and lived in Israel for a decade.
One aim of the journey is to lay the groundwork for a trip in May 2010 with more members of the three faith communities. Nazareth College also is starting a new interfaith studies minor, and coursework will include future visits to the Holy Land as a culmination of students’ education.
Another goal of the December trip, according to Sister Nowak, is that it may serve as a symbol to Israelis and Arabs that interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism are attainable and have been successful in the Diocese of Rochester. It also may guide future interfaith discussions, Imam Shafiq said.
"This will give people a common experience of how Abrahamic religions have a close tradition," added Imam Shafiq, who holds a doctorate in religion.
The travelers will visit the cities of Galilee, Masada, Jerusalem and Istanbul, and a host of holy sites including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives. The group also will meet with representatives of a variety of religions and ethnicities, including the Islamic Druze sect, the desert-dwelling Bedouins and followers of Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism.
"The visit will be a very in-depth understanding of the three religions’ intersection, and the commonalities between the three religions," Eisen said.
He noted that the group hopes to meet again with a delegation of Israelis and Palestinians that they met at Nazareth College in September during a visit sponsored by the U.S. State Department. At the college, the interfaith group discussed the college’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue as a model for peace building in Israel.
Some, including a Vatican official who recently spoke to the United Nations, believe such interfaith dialogue may be the key to promoting a lasting peace in the Middle East. As plans are made for a synod of Middle East bishops in October 2010, some political observers noted that this is a critical time for dialogue.
One focus of tension is Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Following Israel’s withdrawal from the area in 2005, that territory fell under the control by the radical group Hamas following Palestinian parliamentary elections. Since 2003, more than 8,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza onto southern Israel, with most rocket attacks taking place during past two years, said Larry Fine, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation.
Israel has sporadically retaliated by bombing the territory, and war broke out in December 2008 and January 2009. Israel was cited by a United Nations commission for using disproportionate force during the conflict, which resulted in many civilian casualties. Israel, meanwhile, has said the civilian casualties occurred because Hamas was using people as human shields, Fine said.
Another area in crisis is the West Bank, parts of which are occupied by the Israeli military, and other parts which are administered by the Palestinian Authority. Deacon John McDermott, who took a nine-day trip to Israel and the West Bank in May and June 2009, said he saw critical humanitarian needs firsthand, including a 60-year-old Palestinian refugee camp filled with 13,000 people.
Deacon McDermott also met with several people whose lives had been torn apart by violence. One sign of the deteriorating political situation was that Christians living in the Holy Land were leaving in droves due to worsening conditions, blockades and mobility restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, he said.
During his junket, Deacon McDermott said he also witnessed how new settlements of Israelis across East Jerusalem and the West Bank pose economic and political obstacles for the formation of a stable Palestinian nation in that region. For instance, a parish priest told the deacon’s group how the Palestinian community in which he lives was devastated by Israeli settlers’ confiscation of valuable olive trees.
If a Palestinian nation were formed, Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian territories would either have to be relocated or become Palestinian citizens, Deacon McDermott said.
"They are not going to be very happy with that solution," he said of the Israeli settlers.
Although settlements are often brought up as an issue, Fine pointed out that Israel has made several offers to end occupation of the West Bank in exchange for official recognition of Israel from all other Arab countries. Yet some Arab leaders continue to call for the end of international recognition of Israel and have rejected the offer, he said.
"Israel believes it has a right to exist in secure and safe borders with its neighbors, and many of its neighbors don’t believe that," Fine said.
He pointed to the relationships Israel has forged with Egypt and Jordan as evidence that peace is possible if both sides commit to it. He urged people to pray and to pressure the U.S. to use its alliance with Israel to work for peace.
"Gaza’s a problem, but in terms of negotiations about the West Bank, everybody knows roughly how it could turn out," Fine said. "It’s absolutely solvable."
Fine said humanitarian conditions in the West Bank did not have to degrade to their current level; he pointed to corruption in the Palestinian Authority, which he said has diverted billions of dollars intended for infrastructure improvements and humanitarian aid.
He noted that in January 2010, elections for control of the Palestinian Authority are scheduled, which could result in a change of leadership at the authority. The future is uncertain for moderate Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. ally who has rejected violence against Israel. As for Gaza, word emerged in late November 2009 that Israel and Hamas also may be brokering a prisoner swap that could help thaw relations between the two sides.
"Give and take is absolutely the only thing that can be saving us from another armed conflict," Eisen noted.
The question of how to promote peace is one that people of faith need to reflect on, Imam Shafiq noted.
"We need to understand the situation and realize that both sides have to coexist justly," he said.