National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Mideast Peace


Since returning from my trip with the National Interreligious Initiative for Mid East Peace in December, many people have asked me, “how was your trip?”  I have found it difficult to sum it up in a word. With a month of introspection I have come to it: “worthwhile.”  I’d like to share some of it with you.

Since NILI initiative began in 2003, we have been hoping to meet with religious and political leaders in the Holy Land. We felt that by adding a strong American religious voice for peace, representing many major Christian, Jewish and Muslim national organizations, we could lend support to the various civil society and government efforts working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most Israelis and the Palestinians, when polled, support a two-state solution and want to see an end to the conflict. Despite all of the wounds and mistrust, the vastly differing narratives that underlie the various views on the causes and effects in the conflict, when it comes right down to the core, everyone wants to reach a solution. And solutions to conflicts this complicated necessarily involve compromise on all sides. Our message is intended to help aid the emotional and spiritual exploration that will enable both sides to let go of some perceptions and even some hopes, in the process of coming to terms with those compromises.

Fifteen religious leaders went on this mission.  The trip was worthwhile for its ability to expand the NILI mission and deepen the relationships that are at the core of NILI’s success. We learned more about each other and about the conflict’s core issues. We heard many reflections on solutions to the problems that have for so long held final peace at bay: Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugees.

One particularly valuable conversation was with the American Ambassador to Israel. We wished we could have had meetings of this nature with Israeli and Palestinian government officials. Insofar as we were not able to secure meetings with high-level political leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a part of our initial vision for this trip did not come to fruition. This was a learning experience for us.  But another significant goal was realized – we met with our counterparts, the Council of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land.  The frank conversations with the representatives of the Chief Rabbinate, the religious leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and the leaders of the major Christian groups in the region were a successful example of collaboration and partnership. We had been looking forward to this for a long time, and it was well worth the wait.

The trip was intense –we focused on difficult issues and worked to appreciate the various points of view. We held an important discussion to enable the members of the group to hear each other on deep questions that tend to reverberate below the surface: What does the Holy Land mean to you? What challenges you about this place? What delights you about this place?  This open and honest discussion prepared us to process the challenges that we faced when the issues became very emotional.

As we processed the lessons from our speakers, we came to understand how the difficult unresolved issues have solutions that a growing number of people on both sides are beginning to embrace. The division of Jerusalem into East and West Jerusalem, with the future Palestinian and Israeli in capitals in the two newly bordered cities, makes abundant sense. Many Palestinians are beginning to accept that most refugees cannot go back to towns and villages that are now in Israel. And many Israelis understand that the resolution will involve compensation to Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948.  Finally, the West Bank must return to Palestinians, in a viable contiguous area that is shaped by Israel’s withdrawal and negotiations over land exchanges to accommodate some of the largest settlements that may remain within Israel.

We learned a great deal on this trip. Through active listening, compassion and cooperation we were able once again, to agree on a joint statement at the conclusion of our trip. This reflects consensus views that we shared through this journey.  We are anxious for a continuation of our work together, building on the strong foundation that we built during this trip.

You can find more information about NILI and our trip statement at: http://www.nili-mideastpeace.org/.

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NILI with Council of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land

There is much more to share about the experiences of the NILI delegation in Israel and the West Bank. Over the coming days I will reflect on the days of the mission in a series of posts. In the meantime, I am proud to share the Delegation’s statement from our trip.  Since our first NILI meeting in 2003, we have been able to achieve a remarkable consensus on the path to peace. We have weathered the challenges of these years by refusing to give in to cynicism or hopelessness and remaining focused on the goal: that the suffering of all Israelis and Palestinians be relieved through a comprehensive peace that is just and lasting.  We hope that we can contribute to this through our work.

National Interreligious Leadership Initiative

for Peace in the Middle East

(360) 652-4285 or E-Mail: usicpme@aol.com

Website: www.nili-mideastpeace.org

For Immediate Release                                                      For More Information Contact:

December 30, 2009                                                    Ron Young E-mail: usicpme@aol.com

or (425) 327-7545

Interfaith Delegation of American Jewish, Christian and Muslim Religious Leaders

Travel, Pray Together and Meet with Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians;

Delegation Asserts Urgency Of U.S. Leadership in 2010 to Achieve Negotiated Peace

Following a week of praying together and meeting Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians, a delegation of 15 U.S. Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders returned home united in pursuit of peace, with a new, shared sense of urgency. They called for active, fair and firm U.S. leadership in the New Year to restart negotiations for a two-state solution, involving an end to occupation and security for Israel and Palestine. They repeated NILI’s goal to build on the Arab Peace Initiative for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, including peace agreements between Israel and Syria and Lebanon. Leaders of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace (NILI) that organized the trip said they will seek high level meetings with the Obama Administration to offer their support for U.S. leadership for peace.

The delegation included Christian leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), National Baptist Convention, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church, and United Methodist Church; Jewish leaders of Reform Judaism, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; and Muslim leaders of the Islamic Society of North America, Clergy Beyond Borders, and the President Emeritus of the Council of Mosques.  (The List of Participants follows below.)

Believing steps on the ground are needed to restore hope, the NILI delegation 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, including international measures to prevent resupplying of rockets; for allowing the flow of urgently needed humanitarian and economic assistance to the people of Gaza; for continuing good efforts to improve the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to increase security and economic development; and for further reducing the number of checkpoints and freezing all settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, DC, said, “We heard two messages repeatedly from Palestinians and Israelis with whom we met: first, that time is running out for a viable two-state solution; and second, that people on both sides know the difficult compromises that will be necessary for peace and most people are prepared to accept them.”  Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 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 jeopardize 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.”  Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, National Director of the Islamic Society of North America, said, “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 U.S. leadership is essential to making that happen. We are united in support of such U.S. leadership for peace.”

The delegation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders were encouraged by negotiations for freeing Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, in exchange for release of some number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.  Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister, President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said, “We all pray to the One, merciful God that these negotiations will succeed and that prisoners will be released; and we call on our government to work urgently to restart negotiations and move forward in 2010 toward Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

*    *    *    *

National Interreligious Leadership Initiative

for Peace in the Middle East

NILI Delegation – List of Participants

December 2009

Christian Leaders

His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick

Archbishop Emeritus of Washington

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, Chairman

Committee on International Justice and Peace

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Fr. Mark Arey, Director

Office of Ecumenical Affairs

Greek Orthodox Church in America

Cont’d

Dr. J. William Shaw, President

National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.

Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins

General Minister, President

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Bishop Margaret Payne

ELCA New England Synod

ELCA Middle East Ready Bench

Representing Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Elaine J. W. Stanovsky

Bishop, Denver Area

United Methodist Church

Representing the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church

Bishop Barry Beisner

Bishop of Northern California

Representing The Most Rev. Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop, The Episcopal Church

Jewish Leaders

Rabbi Paul Menitoff

Executive Vice President Emeritus

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Dr. Carl Sheingold

Executive Vice President

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation

Rabbi Amy Small

Past President

Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly

Muslim Leaders

Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed

National Director

Islamic Society of North America

Dr. Shaheer Yousaf

Islamic Society of North America

Islamic Center of Southern Maryland

Imam Yahya Hendi

Muslim Chaplain

Georgetown University*

Cont’d

Dawud Assad

President Emeritus

Council of Mosques, USA

Staff

Ronald Young, Consultant   E-Mail: usicpme@aol.com

National Interreligious Leadership Initiative

For Peace in the Middle East

Imam Yahya Hendi and his brother in Jericho

Shabbat was joyous and uplifting, except for the heartbreak that all of the members of our Delegation have shared — Imam Yahya Hendi, a great lover of peace and righteous man, was not permitted access to Israel from the Allenby Bridge when we crossed over from Jordan. Imam Hendi, a native of Nablus, has been a US citizen for many years, and even works as an emissary of the US State Dept to countries all over the world to speak as a Muslim about interreligious cooperation in peacemaking, and to represent a powerful Muslim voice for peace. That he was prohibited entry was shameful and heartbreaking. We pray that he will join us tomorrow when we visit Ramallah.
Fortunately, Imam Hendi’s brother lives in Ramallah and was able to come and pick him up when we were in Jericho yesterday. Their sweet reunion was enjoyed by all and is reflected in the pictures. I hope Yahya has had a restful, replenishing visit with his family. He was surely missed this Shabbat, and our prayers were with him.

I have learned over the years to make every effort to plan overseas trips for professional meetings by arriving at least a day early to get adjusted to the time and to get acquainted with the place. I wish I had done that on this trip, as it is such a pity that our one night in Jordan was strained by jet lag and fatigue and we will barely see Amman before we have to leave in the morning. I am determined now to return here.

The good news is that when I do, I will have contacts here and acquaintances with whom I could share friendship. In our brief program here we were treated to a royal dinner at the Amman Marriott by the hotel’s owner, Rajai Muasher. His Excellency Muasher is himself a member of the Jordanian Upper House of Parliament, and he was described by a colleague as one of the most influential Christians in Jordan. An interesting start for this interreligious delegation – never forget that interreligious dialogue is about breaking down assumptions and misunderstandings between us.

His Excellency Muasher, pictured standing as he offered words of greeting to the Delegation, was a most gracious host. Not only were we warmly greeted, but our host demonstrated his sincere interest in our Delegation by inviting several important Jordanian political leaders to dine with us and to address our group.  Two former Prime Ministers joined us for dinner and spoke to us, His Excellency Fayez Tarawneh and H.E. Zeid Rifai.  Senator H.E.  Akel Bilatji (pictured standing with me) was also among our hosts and guest speakers.

Our Delegation was invited to ask questions of the senators. We had an opportunity to hear their views on Mideast Peace – the opportunities and the barriers – and the conversation was far more than superficial niceties. As always, warm thanks to Cardinal McCarrick for his gentle, yet firm leadership of the conversation. He is a blessing to us all.

My question to the Prime Minster was this: “We as religious leaders have come together to bring the voice of religion to peacemaking. After all, this is the ‘Holy Land’, and surely religion has a role in the way we live in this land. How can we as religious leaders best use our voices to help to further the work of peacemaking that you, the political leaders, are trying so earnestly to bring to fruition?” That sparked an interesting difference of opinion between our Jordanian hosts on the meaning of the intersection between religion and politics and religion and peacemaking. Like my colleagues  in our Delegation, I listened intently. And I was reminded, as our facilitator Ron Young articulated tonight, that “listening is not a passive activity.” By actively trying to listen and understand, we may be able to take the learning from the sum of our meetings to achieve yet new insights and certainly new relationships. I was proud to be part of this august group of religious leaders, tonight in large part, because of the capacity our group demonstrated to be active listeners.

I pray that each day of our mission builds upon this. Tomorrow we journey toward Jerusalem, surely a place where compassionate listening will be essential.

Amman has drawn me in, after tomorrow I will look forward to my return.

A good start to an important mission.