IS THERE any other territory on earth about which more stories
have been told than the region of the Middle East we call the Holy
The pilgrimages I have made in the past have told some of those
stories, primarily the narrative of the life of Jesus, stories
which make up the core narrative of my life as a Christian. But
many other stories are told about the Holy Land, stories from more
than 1000 years of Muslim rule, stories of Jewish faith that do not
end with the New Testament. And the Holy Land is a place where
these different narratives collide, often violently.
So I was under no illusions about the risk involved in taking 20
LSE students from the three Abrahamic faiths - Muslims, Jews, and
Christians - on an interfaith trip last month. The aim was to try
to tell the three narratives of this land in ways that did justice
to each, ways that avoided the stories' being competing bids for
power, and ways that built understanding rather than fed people's
Fears ran deep. They ran deep in our group. One Muslim
participant spoke afterwards of "an almost sinking feeling" on the
coach journey from the airport into Jerusalem, as if in coming to
Israel at all he was "behind enemy lines".
But, most of all, fears ran deep among those whom we met. We
encountered fear among Christian monks who had recently been
victims of an extremist Israeli attack. We heard of the fears of
the Palestinian families with whom we stayed in Bethlehem, as the
eight-metre-high wall suffocates their town. And we encountered the
fears of Israelis whose small country feels ever more isolated in a
region in which Islamism is on the rise.
Yet, as the different stories were told and conversations began,
fears within the group were slowly replaced by understanding -
telling, for our group, a new shared story. Jewish and Christian
students were humbled by the way in which the Muslim students
structured their lives around their five-times-a-day prayers, and
got up early to make them in the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest
site in Islam.
Muslims were fascinated by the Roman Catholic mass we attended
in Jerusalem, which, being in Arabic, resonated far more deeply
with the language of their own devotions than they had imagined.
(It also meant they had to translate the Bible readings for us
And the generous hospitality of Israeli families for a shabbat
meal, combined with a difficult visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust
memorial, gave insights into the Jewish culture and history of the
region, which neither the Muslims nor the Christians had fully
These new bonds were reinforced by the extraordinary groups and
individuals we met, who, in the face of a bleak political outlook,
were forging interfaith understanding on the ground. Sami Awad's
Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem showed how Christians can take a lead
in bringing healing between the two other majority communities.
We met members of the White Mosque in Nazareth, who are standing
up to the anti-Christian elements in the Muslim community there. In
particular, we were inspired and encouraged by members of the
Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel, who organised our
trip and are involved in a number of projects to build grass-roots
interfaith understanding among young people.
Most heartening was how our group itself brought hope to the
people we met. As we queued to ascend the Temple Mount, the
security guard looked with confusion at us all - a priest, girls in
headscarves, and men wearing kippahs - and, after we explained that
we were a joint group of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students, he
asked: "Where are you from, and can I live there?"
It was a reminder to me that when the big political narrative
seems so bleak, the shared stories we tell at the level of our own
communities can slowly bring hope for change.
The Revd Dr James Walters is the Chaplain to the London
School of Economics.