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Peacebuilders incorporate traditions


From a coffee-drinking ritual to hugging Jerusalem, a network of grassroots peacebuilders employ common, ancient religious and cultural traditions to draw people of Abrahamic religions into their efforts to build peace in the Holy Land.

Jerusalem Peacebuilders
Rabbi Eliyahu McLean and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra visit with Thomas Schmidt, of the Baraka Sufi Commuity in Spokane, one of the groups that invited the speakers.

While most media reports on the Middle East make peace seem impossible, Rabbi Eliyahu McLean and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra put their hope for peace into practical actions.

They told people gathered Nov. 28 at Country Homes Christian Church in Spokane of their work as Jerusalem Peacemakers, a network of religious leaders using Middle Eastern traditions to bring people together.  They were here as part of a two-and-a-half-month tour of North America.

“It’s immoral that people are kept apart to sell news,” Eliyahu said.

While “peace” is a dirty word in the political spheres of the Holy Land, they reminded people—by doing a closing song and circle dance—that “shalom” in Hebrew and “salaam” in Islam not only mean “peace” but also are names for God. 

 “We came to share positive stories of hope you do not read about in the New York Times or local daily.  We came to tell you of our hope that the children of Abraham and the wider human family of God will bring peace and reconciliation to the Holy Land,” Eliyahu said.

Most efforts to negotiate a Middle East peace settlement using western means fall short because they ignore Eastern spiritual and prophetic tools for forgiving and reconciling, he said.

Groups making their Spokane visit possible included Baraka Sufi Group, Spiritus at the Cathedral of St. John, Unity Church South, the Center for Spiritual Living, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, One Peace Many Paths and the Interfaith Council.

Spokane was also part of the tour because Venerable Geshe Thubten Phelgye, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is teaching as a 2011-2012 global scholar at Gonzaga University, spent four years with the Jerusalem Peacemakers, beginning in 2004. 

As director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Nazareth, Ghassan promotes tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Born in Nazareth, he studied in a Catholic high school, earned a master’s degree in Arabic literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and taught about Islam as a Fulbright scholar at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 2008.

One night when he was a child and sleeping with cousins on the balcony of his grandfather’s home, his grandfather woke him and told him, “Meet yourself.”  After his grandfather died, Ghassan went to a sheikh, who told him his grandfather meant that he wanted him to know himself.

The Koran says God created all people and all nations to be different but to know one another, Ghassan said.  He now realizes that knowing other people helps him know himself.

“Now when I meet Christians and Jews, I understand,” he said.  “To know God, we need to know ourselves.  We cannot know ourselves alone.  Only the other can complete me, as a mirror, reflecting me in his or her eyes.

“Others are also my bridge to God.  We need to change our individual ways and be part of activities and movements that bring us into connection,” he said.

The Islamic Cultural Center brings people together to create alternatives to the stalemate among political leaders.

One way is to influence the next generation of educators, politicians and religious leaders by offering training in tolerance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim high school teachers and principals.

Ghassan said they were at first hesitant. Jews believe Muslims and Christians want to push them into the sea.  Muslims and Christians believe Jews want to push them into the sea.

Overcoming their hesitation, the educators developed projects and created an informal education program to help people overcome prejudice and stereotypes.

Next Ghassan reached out to train parents of different faiths, so they can model for their children.  He helps parents connect and share meals to come to know each other.

In addition, through the center’s leadership project, he invited 12 imams and sheiks to teach an introduction to their faith and to learn from leaders of the other religion.  After a year, they felt the experience had “cleaned their minds of stereotypes,” he said.

One rabbi who came was Eliyahu. 

“I realize I needed him to complete myself.  I am not right wing or left wing.  If I am to fly, I need both wings, both Muslims and Jews.  I also hope to have Christians, Buddhists and Druse be partners in our project.”

In coming to Spokane, Ghassan hopes “I will be part of you, so we are one.  We all have part of the story and only together can we discover truth.  With truth we can have reconciliation.  We ask for your prayers every day,” he said.

Eliyahu, who is director of the Jerusalem Peacemakers, was born in 1967 in California to a Christian father and Jewish mother, and grew up in Hawaii.  He found his identity and home in a synagogue. 

A pro-Israeli activist as a teen, he went to Israel and fell in love with it.  As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, he met a pro-Palestinian activist, studied Islam and decided to dedicate his life to peacemaking in the Holy Land, where he moved 13 years ago.

Active in the interfaith world, he has sought to build bridges for the Abrahamic religions.  One way was to help found the Jerusalem Peacemakers in 2004.

“We seek to bring peace to the Middle East through using prophetic and spiritual wisdom, such as through the Middle Eastern sulha ritual,” he said, explaining that it’s like the suha process in the Jewish tradition.

“Part of my duty at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is to search for someone I have wronged and ask three times for the person to forgive me.  If someone asks me three times for forgiveness, I am to forgive that person,” the rabbi said.  “It’s not just for forgiving neighbors and people in my religion, but for forgiving people of other religions and cultures.”

The sulha Arabic reconciliation ritual is built around strong, rich, black coffee, Eliyahu said. 

“If an enemy invites you to coffee, you must accept.  It’s based on an honor code to bring two tribes together.  The head of one tribe invites the head of another.  If a cup of coffee is offered, the head of the other tribe must drink it in order not to humiliate the host,” Eliyahu explained.  “If the guest accepts a second cup, it’s a double honor.

“In the religious tradition of forgiving three times, if the third cup is offered and accepted, it says the people are ready to forgive and negotiate a resolution,” he said.

When the second Intifada was beginning in 2000, an informal network of peacemakers who later formed the Jerusalem Peacemakers organized a Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan Sulha that became an annual event.  It grew to 4,000 people in the fourth year, with guests from many cultures where there are conflicts.

The Sulha is now a monthly gathering of 200 people who sit together, share, listen and open their hearts to hear each other’s experiences.

The Abrahamic Reunion, another Jerusalem Peacemakers’ project, brings together the family of Abraham—Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druse—who share belief in the one God.  Participants learn about each other’s religious customs, practices, prayers and values as a way to turn the religions into a force for peace, he said.

Participants help each other communicate to their faith communities in order to dispel fear and prejudice arising from incidents of violence. 

“We need to waken from the illusion of separation,” he said.

When rockets flew into Gaza, Israeli high school teachers and students met with Arabs to share their pain and their desire to break down the walls of fear.

“After every act of war, we bring religious leaders together for meals, prayer and dialogue on issues on which politicians seek to divide us,” Eliyahu said.

When a World Congress of Rabbis and Imams for Peace was about to collapse as discussion turned political, an imam and then a rabbi sang, beginning four hours of singing that brought unity.  The next day they talked about the occupation, terrorism and disproportionate power with open hearts and minds, he said.

Five years ago, Eliyahu brought lovers of Jerusalem together to “hug” Jerusalem.  At first, there were just 20 Israelis and Palestinians. Slowly, Arab shopkeepers, and Israeli settlers and soldiers walking by felt something powerful was happening and wanted to be part of it.  They joined hands as lovers of Jerusalem in the first annual Jerusalem Hug.

Chanting “Shalom” and “Salaam,” they prayed for unity and peace in Abraham’s family.

At the fifth Jerusalem Hug in July, 400 people gathered, Eliyahu said.

“The Hebrew word for Jerusalem means, “you will be Shalom” and the Arabic word means “the holy,”  he explained.

“When you open the newspaper, you read of the earthly Jerusalem.  We seek to be a bridge between the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem,” said Eliyahu, inviting people to come for an interfaith peace tour of Jerusalem.

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