Saturday, 27 June 2015

Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land - John Woodhouse

Reflections on the second “Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land” course at St George’s College, Jerusalem led by the Rt Revd Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra on 18-27 March 2015.

The course was supported by the Christian Muslim Forum and was attended by 10 Christians  and 8 Muslims from the U.K. and one from the U.S.with the aim of gaining a deeper understanding of one another’s theology and perspectives. 

Bishop Richard began by setting the course within a global context and stressing that the way we live together is vital. By the end of the 10 days we had certainly done that and gained a new group of friends! We met with Palestinians and Israelis notably Rabbi David Rosen.This was a special opportunity to ask the right questions and begin to see the Holy Land through each other’s eyes. This article will put forward some themes from a wealth of shared experience.

Shohel Ahmed from East London writes: “For me one theme which stood out was Hospitality. Beginning with the college itself, and the staff at the college, we were greeted with large smiles, firm handshakes and good food. Walking around the markets, it was usually a ‘welcome’ and offering of tea in most stalls and shops. In the mosques it was ‘salamwalaikum’, and a sense of serenity which comes from familiarity. In Dr Mustafa’s house, and in parallel most houses, it was ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ with excellent food, company and hospitality from young and old alike. Wherever we went, I felt that the Palestinians were most happy to have us and host us, and share their wonderful country with us. For me that was striking and apparent from the outset.”

David Kesterton from Luton on his first visit to the Holy Land focused on Place.”What does it mean to share holy spaces? We saw a number of strained and forced efforts. Perhaps we need a version of the Pact of Umar for the 21st century?

Christian devotion earths the ministry of Jesus, his birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection, ascension. The specificity of this “earthing” has resulted in places of pilgrimage and intense devotion. This course has helped me to recognise this fact. Whether these sacred spots on the earth have a genuine claim to be "the place” or are merely in the right general area doesn’t matter and the ultimate point is that it happened somewhere rather than nowhere.

Long before the days of Mission Action Planning in the Church of England, when I was a team vicar in the 1990’s– we thought about strategy and one of the five foci was “Place”. What was the distinctive sense of place about each of the areas in our team ministry? What were the stories that made them unique? It was never possible or desirable to adopt a one size fits all approach to mission. Somehow visiting the holy places on the course reminded me again of the importance of place in the context of parish life.

One of the areas the course did not find time to address in a structured way – was how we deal with the theological differences at the heart of the two faiths. The contrasting approaches to prayer and the nature of the obligations which are inherent in the faiths brings the same question to the surface –“What does it mean to talk about Freedom in Christ and how do we share this central theme of our faith with our Muslim neighbours?”.

Overall it was a great privilege to attend this course and it has deepened my understanding of Islam and my awareness of the historical roots of the ministry of Jesus.” David  commented “I found myself walking down the Mt of Olives with a Muslim colleague asking me about the Christian the understanding of salvation. Is everyone going to heaven? I began explaining the theories of atonement and found myself saying “There are a variety of views”.  I think this is a phrase that will come more than once and I wondered if this sounded “too woolly” for my Muslim friend.”

Another theme which was always present was Prayer.

It was valuable to visit the mosques as well as the churches. Throughout the time together we were very conscious of our Muslim friends going very early in the morning and at every opportunity to the Al Aqsa mosque to pray. This is the third most important site for them and prayers there are multiplied 10,000 times. It was an enormous privilege to go into the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock together. They are both astonishing building of great beauty and steeped in devotion.

For the Christians the liturgies in St George’s cathedral and the college helped to bond us together and there was a memorable Eucharist by the sea outside the Church of the Beatitudes attended by the whole group. Going early on Sunday morning to the Holy Sepulchre we were able to experience Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox liturgies. At the final station on the Via Dolorosa just outside the Holy Sepulchre outside the Coptic Orthodox church there are large banners showing the martyrdom of 21 Copts in Libya – a chilling reminder of the on-going persecution of Christians.

David Kesterton commented “Our group attended the Sunday Eucharist at St Georges Cathedral – with the sermon delivered in Arabic and English. The only word in the Arabic sermon I recognised was “Facebook”! It was odd that the Muslim sitting next to me followed more of the sermon than I did. “

Visiting Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum  and the Sea of Galilee put things into a different context. At Nazareth we heard passages from the Quran about Mary. At the sea itself our Muslim friends washed and prayed at the sea shore while others paddled or spent time in contemplation. For all of us this was a very special place.

Finally a theme which shone through was Hope. There was a message of hope in our encounters with Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem and his wife. We heard of the work of hospitals and clinics and of local interfaith work where Christians have a vital role. Religion can be part of the solution not the problem. The visit of Pope Francis had sent a powerful message of peace. The Archbishop stressed the importance of embracing the Middle East. The West must not neglect the Christian presence in the Holy Land who are living stones and many are suffering poverty because there are no jobs. And yet the 15-year-old Muslim and Christian students expressed solidarity. Being Muslim or Christian did not matter. They had great hope for the future and wanted to make Palestine the best country in the world!

We learnt a lot and we grappled with difficult and sensitive issues. The message of this time together is that we can share so much and live well together. We need to build on what is already in existence and promote more local joint projects. The Palestine/Israel issue needs to sensitively addressed in our interfaith forums. It has tended to be overshadowed by IS but until this is issue is resolved there cannot be peace in the region.

The course will be repeated 10-17 March 2016 at the college which is an excellent place to stay.

John Woodhouse
Westminster Cathedral Interfaith Group

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