Judith Sudilovsky
Religion must take on a more positive role in peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, especially in light of the deteriorating situation there, faith leaders have said. “Religion must be part of the solution,” said Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan at a June 2 meeting sponsored by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

Instead of allowing itself to be misused by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim extremist groups, religion must be prophetic, a catalyst of reconciliation, and offer peace education, said Younan, who is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

The meeting was organized before the latest tensions in the region caused after Israeli forces intercepted a flotilla of ships en route for Gaza. Nine people died in the incident.
Younan warned religious leaders against becoming “mini-politicians,” and stressed the need to be critical of one’s own political leaders. “Are we ready as religious leaders to do that? That is the challenge,” he said. “Religion is already in politics,” said Younan. “When religion tries to interfere in politics, then it becomes a difficult part of the problem rather than a solution. It becomes dangerous when religion is interpreted as an agenda, and made into scenarios of a holy book.” He added that religious leaders must bring their followers back to the basic tenets of religion: “To love God and to love your neighbor.” At the same time, “religion must speak truth to power, and promote justice whenever faced with injustice,” said the bishop.

Others at the meeting included Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament; Mohammed S. Dajani, the founding director of the Wasatia Islamic Movement Palestine; and Deborah Weissman, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews. “We must strive to employ within each of our cultures those aspects [of our religious faiths] which promote openness,” said Weisman, noting that there is a clash within religions between the forces of extremism and those of moderation and tolerance.

Praising the late Pope John Paul II’s apology for past persecution of the Jews, Bishop Younan said Israeli and Palestinian political and religious leaders must also stand up and make

confessions about their past actions.”If we use religion to say ‘Sorry’, there can be new life but if we use the Bible to deny that, religion becomes counterproductive,” said Younan, who is a vice-president of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation. “We must have religious, prophetic change to ground us to say we are sorry. Then, we are ready for a new beginning.”

Younan described peace education as crucial if religion is to play a role and help instill values of genuine tolerance in children and young people. “Tolerance is not simply the absence of hatred but … [the creation] of shared hope and values for the future,” he said.

The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information that organized the meeting describes itself as a joint institution of Israelis and Palestinians dedicated to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a “two states for two peoples” solution. It also says it is, “the only joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think-tank in the world.”