Brian Cox, Tim Pownall and Michael Zacharia conducted a mission to the Middle East April 20 � May 20, 2009 to further the development of the Middle East Faith-Based Reconciliation Project.
In 2005 ICRD entered into a partner relationship with Musalaha, a Jerusalem-based NGO with an established track record of working for reconciliation in Israel/Palestine. The focus of the project was to combine the methodologies developed by Salim Munayer (Desert Encounter) and Brian Cox (Faith-Based Reconciliation) to create a three stage process as a religious framework for peacemaking and conflict resolution that focused on changing hearts as a prelude to joint problem solving. The first stage of the project would focus on Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The second stage would include Israelis. The purpose of the project is to create genuine grass roots people movements in both Israel and Palestine as a means of socializing the Abrahamic values of Faith-Based Reconciliation in both societies as a new but ancient paradigm for the Middle East.
We spent four days in the desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan near the Saudi border with 24 Christian and Muslim Palestinians from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, April 23 � 27, 2009. We drove from Jerusalem to Eilat along the Dead Sea and Negev Desert and crossed the border from Israel to Jordan at Aqaba. We camped in a region where there were no roads, only trails in the sand with vast majestic wadis. We slept in a communal Beduoin tent (men in one tent/women in a second tent) with primitive eating and bathroom conditions. The Arabian Desert is the harsh but breathtaking environment of Muhammed the Prophet and Lawrence of Arabia. The first day involved an eight hour camel ride which was exciting for the first ten minutes. The purpose was to spend time with yourself in an introspective manner so as to ask yourself deep and profound questions in an environment which strips you down to the very basics of survival. The harsh desert environment strips away all pretenses and self illusions. It is the very environment that shaped Abraham as a person of faith who submitted his life to God's authority and by that established a paradigm that changed the course of history in more than one way.
The second day involved an all day jeep trip and an exercise of mountain climbing. The purpose was to learn to depend on and trust others with your very life. As Americans coming from a powerful nation we found ourselves having to put our lives into the hands of Palestinians, a weak and wounded nation. As one who has a fear of heights I found myself having to confront and overcome that fear as I balanced on rock ledges overlooking a vast drop. Holding on for dear life and taking the extended hand of "the other" was a lesson in deep trust and humility.
The third day involved a six hour hike around Wadi Rum in the blazing sun. The purpose was to learn perseverance which is required for those committed to be agents of reconciliation in places like the Middle East. The next stage of the process, the Faith-Based Reconciliation Seminar, will be conducted in late September in Anatolia, Turkey.
The Parents Circle is a renown indigenous initiative of Israelis and Palestinians who have come together in their shared grief at losing family members in the conflict. Brian Cox and Robi Damelin (Parents Circle Leader) first met at a presentation of the program in West Los Angeles in November 2008. During the first Middle East Mission in December 2008 we met with the top leadership of the movement at their office in Tel Aviv. The result of the meeting was an invitation for the PACIS PROJECT of ICRD/Straus to conduct a faith-based reconciliation seminar for their leadership.
The original venue for the seminar (East Jerusalem) had to be changed at the last minute to Talitha Cumi near Beit Jala (Area C) because of expected closures in Jerusalem due to the Papal visit and the anniversary of the Nakbha (May 15). The seminar began on May 14 and concluded on May 16. There were 36 participants (16 Israelis/20 Palestinians) that came from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron. We utilized simultaneous translation of the presentations into Hebrew and Arabic. Small Group discussions combined Hebrew, Arabic and English.
There were eight presentations:
The presentations were given by Brian Cox, Tim Pownall and Michael Zacharia in English with simultaneous translation. There were nine exercises/activities:
The most challenging presentation/exercises were on forgiveness and faith. The subject of forgiveness brought intense inner struggle and soul searching particularly as it concerned forgiveness of those who had killed their family members. The subject of faith was challenging since most of the participants were self identified secular Israelis and Palestinians. In some cases intense hostility was vocalized about faith and people of faith. However, their courage and willingness to explore new vistas led to a genuine softening of hearts about the role of faith in the peacemaking process in the Middle East. There was also a humble and heartfelt recognition on the part of the leaders of the Parents Circle that their attitudes about people of faith had closed off key segments of Israeli and Palestinian societies to their movement. There was genuine interest expressed in an ongoing relationship with the PACIS PROJECT of ICRD/Straus to enable the Parents Circle to fulfill its larger mission in Israel/Palestine.
In December 2008 we began the process of establishing contact and developing rapport with Syrian and Israeli track one negotiators from both the 2000 Camp David talks and the present Turkish mediated talks between Israel and Syria. In February 2009 we had our first meeting with a senior official from the Obama Administration Middle East team. On this trip we had a conference call with the chief Israeli negotiator from the 1993 Oslo Accords and met with a retired Israeli general who has led back channel diplomatic initiatives with both Fatah and Hamas. We met with a senior Israeli journalist from one of the leading strategic studies centers in Jerusalem, and with the chief Israeli negotiator from the 2000 Camp David talks who is actively engaged in a track two process.
In Amman Jordan we met with a former senior advisor to King Abdullah II and a senior Jordanian journalist to explore the potential and parameters of involving senior level Jordanian leaders in a track two faith-based process. There were meetings with experts on the Muslim Brotherhood so as to better understand the nature, structure, aspirations and influence of this movement. We also explored how to socialize Abrahamic values within the Muslim Brotherhood network. These experts confirmed for us that the Muslim Brotherhood was a key to socializing the Abrahamic values of faith-based reconciliation in the Arab world. In previous visits to Amman we have conducted meetings with the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.
During this mission we also met with the leadership of a number of indigenous NGO's to explore the potential for cooperative relationships. These included The Peres Peace Center (Tel Aviv), Zmin Midbar (Arad), and the Jordan Coexistence Foundation (Amman).
Brian Cox's established relationship with Bishop Suheil Dawani and the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East has provided a beginning point for utilizing the faith-based reconciliation process with religious leaders in Israel/Palestine. The bishop has invited the PACIS PROJECT of ICRD/Straus to conduct a Faith Based Reconciliation seminar for clergy and lay leaders in early October 2009, most likely in Amman, Jordan. In a December 2008 meeting that Brian Cox had with Bishop Dawani, Canon Shehadeh Shehadeh and Canon Samir Habiby, the bishop expressed a concern and an aspiration. The concern was for the small and dwindling size of the Arab Christian community in Israel/Palestine. The aspiration was to see the Christian community play its biblical and historic role as a reconciler and peacemaker among the Abrahamic communities in the Middle East.
We visited three schools: an Arab public school in Jaffa, a Hebrew speaking school, Bialik-Rogozin in Tel Aviv and an Arab Christian School in Ramallah. Each in different ways is promoting values of pluralism and inclusiveness. In addition, we have developed a rapport with officials from the Ministry of Education in Tel Aviv as well as the headmasters of these schools. We plan to explore the potential for developing a curriculum of Abrahamic Faith-Based Reconciliation that could be utilized in schools in both Israel and in Palestine to create a common vision, values and language for the future.
There was a meeting with a member of the Jerusalem City Council and a day spent with a retired official from the Jerusalem municipality. These provided key insights into the dynamics of the city of Jerusalem. First, we learned that there are three key identity blocs in Jerusalem: Haredim, Pluralists (Modern Orthodox and Secular Jews) and Arabs. The presence and influence of the Haredim (ultra orthodox) is growing and with it an exclusivist vision for Jerusalem that puts pressure both on other Jews (Modern Orthodox and Secular) and on Arabs. This is a hidden landmine in the hope of resolving the core issue of Jerusalem as part of a negotiated settlement. The present city council has a 12/9 balance with Pluralists in the majority. However, Haredim birth rate (ten to twelve children per family) will ultimately be a major factor in shaping the future.
Second, there are pockets of Jewish settlements creeping into the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheik Jarrah and Silwan. Of particular concern is the E-1 Corridor between Sheik Jarrah and Maale Adumim. If this corridor is built out it will effectively split the West Bank in half and render a two state solution virtually impossible.
Third, there is at least one track two initiative proposing the creation of a Special Governance Regime for the Old City of Jerusalem. This represents a creative proposal to deal with shared governance issues while postponing the issue of sovereignty.
During this mission we learned that there are over 400 international and indigenous NGO's working for peace in the Middle East. Meetings of Israelis and Palestinians at all levels are a common, everyday occurrence. Each NGO has an established methodology, networks, strategic goals and funding sources. Hence, we had to ask ourselves the question "Can the PACIS PROJECT of ICRD/Straus really make a unique contribution to the peace process or are we just one more NGO seeking to carve out its turf and market share?" From the many conversations that we have had with leaders from all levels and on all sides of the Middle East conflict and from our previous experiences in Sudan, Kashmir and Syria there seems to be an emerging unique role for the PACIS PROJECT of ICRD/Straus and a faith-based initiative expressed in eight distinct elements:
The uniqueness of the faith-based reconciliation process
The faith-based reconciliation process is an innovative approach to diplomacy and peacemaking that has been developed over the past twenty years by Brian Cox who brings together a unique background in politics, theological and pastoral training, conflict resolution and international experience. This approach is defined by eight core values and by a deliberative process that focuses on creating a reconciling spirit between antagonists as a prelude to constructive joint problem solving.
As a methodology it is not a form of interfaith dialogue or a traditional conflict resolution model. It is a totally unique experience that causes participants to search the depths of their own being and to experience at the deepest level the heart of "the other" in a faith-based context. It is the reality of an ancient process reemerging in the twenty first century to address the deepest and most profound differences between communities. It is Abrahamic reconciliation!
The transformative impact of the faith-based reconciliation process on participants
This process leads to an actual change of hearts within and among the participants. This is a well developed and battle tested "hearts and minds" approach that has borne tangible fruit in some of the world's roughest neighborhoods, including among former militant leaders in Kashmir.
Based on our experience in Kashmir and other situations of violent conflict we found that the key to resolving intractable identity-based conflict was not gifted peacemakers or creative solutions, but changed hearts.
It calls God into the process
As a genuinely faith-based approach it moves beyond scholarly theological engagement or interfaith dialogue to authentic Abrahamic reconciliation that welcomes the divine presence into the process as the source of changed hearts, relationships and situations. In the past we have seen results that far exceed human skill alone. The practitioners of faith-based reconciliation exercise an intentionality of bringing God into the process through such activities as prayer and fasting. This is particularly important in gaining the confidence of the Muslim world which is suspicious of secular initiatives that feel like an imposition of Western values on an Islamic worldview that seeks to integrate faith and politics.
Based on our experiences in Sudan, Kashmir, Pakistan, India, Syria, Palestine and the American Muslim community we have discovered that the core values of faith-based reconciliation resonate deeply with pious Muslims and, for them, captures the real heart of an Islamic worldview. Many Muslim leaders have described Faith-Based Reconciliation as the alternative to Militant Islam because it engenders passionate commitment among young Muslims who have experienced it.
We have also discovered that the core values of faith-based reconciliation resonate deeply with pious Jews and, for them, captures the heart of the Abrahamic blessing of "tikkun olam" which was given first to the Jewish community to share with the world.
We plan to utilize the faith-based reconciliation process with key senior level, civil society level and grassroots level leaders as a means of socializing the Abrahamic values of faith-based reconciliation in Middle East societies as a means of bringing about genuine social and paradigm change that provides a sustainable environment for peace. Primary shaping institutions in any society are the family, the school, the faith community, the media and internet and, in Israel, the military.
Based on our experience in Kashmir we found that it was not only necessary, but possible to influence the public conversation in the direction of reconciliation even with separatists and militant leaders. Initially people in a zone of violent conflict are hostile to the idea of reconciliation. However, wise, persistent and targeted intervention at all three levels of society (senior, middle and grassroots) can profoundly influence the moral vision of a community. Within a space of eight years in Kashmir ICRD played a significant role in influencing and shaping the public conversation about reconciliation both on the Indian and Pakistani sides of the Line of Control. It can be done and it must be done in the Middle East if there is to be any future that includes a sovereign Jewish state and a sovereign Palestinian state.
Track II Diplomacy
We plan to work with key indigenous allies to identify and engage both track one and influential track two actors in Israel and the Arab countries in a faith-based reconciliation process designed to soften hearts of those who will participate in or influence high level negotiations. Based on our experience in Kashmir we discovered that this process was very successful with high level Kashmiri Muslim leaders from Pakistan and Kashmiri Hindu Pandit leaders from India when we brought them together in Kathmandu, Nepal.
In the U.S. and European national security and foreign policy establishments there is great skepticism about bringing religion into a sensitive process of high level negotiations in an intentional way as a means of actually enhancing the process. More often than not religion is viewed by many national security and foreign policy professionals as part of the problem either causing or contributing to the conflict. Others may welcome, albeit reluctantly, track two faith-based initiatives as bridgebuilding efforts with religious leaders or on the grassroots level. However, for a decidedly faith-based process to play a significant role at the highest levels of negotiation is a totally new concept.
This is the very idea that makes this process unique. The softening of hearts is even necessary with leaders at the highest levels of policymaking and negotiation. The faith-based process and its impact on the human heart has the potential to move the momentum of stalemated processes to a new level. Hence, we are proposing that faith-based reconciliation as a track two initiative be an intentional part of the track one process in the Middle East as a means of creating a reconciling spirit among the policymakers, negotiators and influencers so as to enhance the possibility of a successful outcome.
In the words of one high level U.S. State Department official after hearing a report of ICRD's work in Kashmir, "Well, nothing else has worked in Kashmir. We might as well give faith a chance."
Softening hearts of religious extremists
We plan to engage senior and middle level religious leaders from both Israel and the Arab nations in the Middle East from groups and movements who typically resist constructive problem solving and tend to undermine the peace process. (Haredim, Shas, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah) Since the faith-based reconciliation methodology focuses on "changing hearts" as a prelude to joint problem solving, it was suggested that such a process is better suited to reaching such groups.
Based on our experience in Kashmir we spent a good deal of time in the beginning of our project cultivating relationships with Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist extremists. We even cultivated relationships with former militant leaders. Initially they were hostile to the whole idea of reconciliation, but curious. In time, many former militants or those influenced by militant ideology participated in the faith-based reconciliation process and their hearts were changed and their worldview and activities began to change in the direction of reconciliation.
Focus on Jerusalem
We plan to focus intensively on the city of Jerusalem to create a public conversation and foster a new but ancient moral vision for the city through private meetings with leaders, faith-based reconciliation seminars, civil society meetings, op ed pieces in local publications, and presentations in schools, community organizations, synagogues and mosques. We believe that making a deep impact in Jerusalem will have a rippling effect throughout the region. Because of its unique nature as the "holy city" Jerusalem represents a strategic entry point for third party faith-based intervention.
Engaging the Middle East Neighborhood
We plan to engage leaders from the surrounding Arab states as well as the United States and former colonial powers because all are stakeholders in a conflict that causes the most significant amount of alienation between the Arab and Muslim world and the United States and Europe.
Over the past thirty years there has been a dramatic rise of religious extremism and militancy in the region that is being driven by intense theological convictions which contribute to exclusivist visions of the future as well as intense hostility toward a sovereign Jewish state in the region. Lack of theological sophistication by many earnest and sincere peacemakers in the region has led to analyses and forms of intervention that have failed to grasp the growing complexity of the conflict and the nature and influence of religious extremism and militancy on any possible future negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians (Fatah or Hamas).
This approach appears to dovetail with the strategic policy of the Obama Administration and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to create a Middle East Regional Peace Process. It recognizes that a sustainable two state solution depends upon a transformation of the heart attitudes and relationships in the entire region, not just Israel/Palestine.