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Using Faith to Transcend Religious Conflict

The brutal massacre carried out this week in a Jerusalem synagogue is the most recent event threatening to take the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the dangerous land of religious war.  For more than a century Jews and Arabs have fought over the same small piece of territory by largely making historic and nationalistic claims, not religious ones.  Even though the land in dispute is filled with sacred space and is religiously significant for Jews, Christians and Muslims, mainstream partisans on both sides have largely argued their claim based on history, national identity, or justice.

The headline from my morning Washington Post is a clear statement that not everyone buys into the nationalist paradigm:  Fear of Deadly ‘Religious War’ Between Jews and Muslims Raised after Synagogue Attack.

In fairness, religious claims have always helped inform these arguments, and religiously motivated violence has also been a part of the dynamic, but, contrary to popular belief, this has not been a ‘religious war.’  And hopefully it won’t become one.

The violent attack on men saying their morning prayers in a synagogue is a horrific event not just for the Jewish people but for all of humanity. And it is evidence enough that religion is a key component to the conflict with the unique ability to divide and inflame.

Some would like to imagine taking religion entirely out of the equation. But this place is called the ‘holy land’ for a reason, even if its reputation is as much for the ‘unholy’ things that have happened there as it is for the holy ones.  The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian leader in Bethlehem, has said “in this land we have too much religion—so much that even God himself is saying, ‘Give me a break!’ We have too much religion, but not enough faith.”

And though Western diplomats may wish it were otherwise, religion in the Middle East has to be accounted for. While it can definitely be a force for conflict perpetuation and violence, it can also be an animating force for good.  The question that comes to my mind is the one often posed by my friend Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement —“Can the best of faith defeat the worst of religion?”

This is of course a central question for the broader Middle East today where most people see the world through a religious lens, and where a small but brutal minority who claim they are carrying out an Islamic religious vision are spilling innocent blood in Syria and Iraq.  A key component of any lasting solution to the rise of ISIS is to engage a full array of sectarian leaders as a part of casting a religious and political vision for the future of the region that insures equal rights and protections for all ethnic and sectarian communities with a commitment to mutual flourishing.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a segment of the Palestinian nationalist movement is now making a religious argument and has shown repeated willingness to use violence to achieve its aims, terrifying Israelis and giving credence to those who see the conflict as inherently a religious one.

On the other side, a growing and fervent voice of Israeli nationalism justifies continued appropriation of land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as a part of a divine mandate and insists on the Jewish religious narrative as the only legitimate one, causing Palestinian Muslims and Christians to feel threatened and powerless.  All this while conversations about replacing the Dome of the Rock with a third Jewish Temple are edging beyond the extreme fringe.

Denying the national narrative of the “other” has long been a core impediment to conflict resolution in the Holy Land, but a growing denial of the other’s religious connections, by people on both sides, is even more problematic.

The delicate balance of Jerusalem in particular is being upended in ways that are destabilizing the city. The recent descent in Jerusalem began in the early summer when a local Palestinian youth was abducted and murdered by three Israeli men who were seeking vengeance for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish yeshiva students in the West Bank.

But the uneasy, ambiguous status for Palestinian Jerusalemites goes back much longer.  The Arab residents of East Jerusalem have lived since 1967 in a marginalized and tenuous state, lacking full civil and political rights in Israel, but being ‘grafted in’ to a Jerusalem municipality, which they feel not only ignores their needs but also seeks to force them out while discounting their historic and religious connections to the city.

The routine failure to provide Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem with building permits only results in families building houses without permits that are then subject to demolition.  Further, the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in sensitive areas like the neighborhood of Silwan lead Palestinians to believe that their story is being written out of Jerusalem’s history.

But perhaps the most sensitive flash point and catalyst for conflict is the Temple Mount, which the Muslims refer to as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al Sharif).  The status quo that has long existed there, which reserves the centuries-old right of prayer and worship for Muslims, is increasingly being questioned and challenged by both religious Jews and Israeli politicians.  International religious freedom standards would argue for respect for all religious claims to the site, but changing a religious status quo as fraught as this one without resolving the broader political conflict to which it is largely captive, is a very dangerous game.  Threats to sacred space in Jerusalem, real or perceived, have previously resulted in horrific and unjustified violence.

So, when religious Jews were murdered while praying, Hamas responded with a statement calling the actions of the assailants ‘heroic.’  Amidst this heat, political and national leaders on both sides have done precious little to defuse the conflict.  As is the long-standing custom, the recent attack was defended by some as an act of revenge, and the response has been a promise of further acts of vengeance.  And the cycle continues.

Religious arguments can be used to justify revenge, but they can also be used to denounce it.  All those who feel compelled to ‘seek peace and pursue it,’ who aspire to be peacemakers out of their religious convictions, need to step into this moment and do several things:

1. Denounce violence as inherently wrong, disrespectful of human dignity, and a defiling of the divine image

2. Expose revenge as not only futile and a dead end, but also a usurpation of God’s authority

3. Add to the voices within each religious tradition who are arguing for a different way, and stand with those—of all religions and none—who are working for mutual justice and security, for conflict resolution and toward peace and reconciliation.

4. Redouble efforts to give voice to the peacemakers and to stay in the game, refusing to cede the ground to those who act in violence, hatred, and revenge.

5. Pray for the peace of the region, for wise leaders, for innocent victims of violence and oppression, for those who’ve lost any vision for a better future, and for the flourishing of all in the land.

The best of faith truly can overcome the worst of religion, but it requires intentional actions on the part of people of faith and an openness to work along side others who have the same goals, who value the same universal principles, and who will work for a Jerusalem that respects the two national and three religious claims made on it by Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims.  If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes a religious conflict, then solutions are off the table. But people of faith acting on behalf of mutual flourishing, respecting universal human dignity, are needed and can make a difference. Blessed are the peacemakers.