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Together, a sign of hope

28 February 2014

James Walters recounts the experience of a multifaith pilgrimage

On a journey of discovery: the band of pilgrims from the London School of Economics

On a journey of discovery: the band of pilgrims from the London School of Economics

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 Land?

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.

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 Christians.)

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 appreciated.

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.

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