Among many interfaith activities one that in my view stands out is the Christian/Muslim Forum course entitled the ‘Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land’.
The second running of this course took place at St George’s College – Jerusalem early this year. The course was attended by Christians and Muslims and was led by the Rt Revd Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra.
The aim of this 10 day course was a familiar one; to gain adeeper understanding of Christian and Muslim theology and their perspectives. However what made this course different to others was a unique opportunity it offered to see the Holy Land through each other’s eyes. In the words of Revd Cheetham, “the course was set within a global context and stressing that the way we live together is vital. This was a special opportunity to ask the right questions and begin to see the Holy Land through each other’s eyes.”
Besides searching through the Holy scripts, the course also offered a chance to meet both Palestinians and Israelis. One of the attendees, Shohel Ahmed from East London says:
“…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.” The Holy Places can be starting points for us, to go back and find the roots of our Abrahamic religions, to see and feel where it all started. For Father David Kesterton from Luton, this was the first visit to the Holy Land. “Christian devotion earths the ministry of Jesus, his birth, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. The specificity of this ‘earthing’ has resulted in places of pilgrimage and intense devotion. 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.” he said. He continued: “I found myself walking down the rows of olives with a Muslim colleague asking me about the Christian understanding of the 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.” It was valuable to visit the mosques as well as the churches. Throughout our 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 the reward for prayers there is multiplied 10,000 times. It was an enormous privilege to go into the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. They are both astonishing buildings 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. Revd 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 Qur’an 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. There was a message of hope in our encounters with Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem. We heard of the work of hospitals and clinics and of local interfaith work where Christians play a vital role. Religion can be part of the solution, not the problem. The recent visit of Pope Francis had sent a powerful message of peace. The Archbishop stressed the importance of embracing the Middle East. 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 outcome of this gathering was the realisation that we can share so much and live together so well. We need to build on what is already in existence and promote more local joint projects. The Palestine/Israel issue needs to sensitively be addressed in our interfaith forums. It has tended to be overshadowed by ISIS activities but until the issue of Palestine/Israel is resolved there cannot be peace in the region. Finally as Revd Kesterton said, there should be more discussion on the theological differences at the heart of the two faiths such as for example, the contrasting approaches to prayer and the nature of the obligations which are inherent in the faiths.
This course will be repeated on10 -17 March 2016 at the St George’s College in Jerusalem.
John Woodhouse is a member of Westminster Cathedral Interfaith Group. www.sgcjerusalem.org