Religion is not doing what it is supposed to do

[Friday, January 15]

Our Thursday started with our concern for Haiti and the Haitian people but also, of course, for our colleagues in other aid agencies on the ground in that country who are unsure about the safety of their own people there.

Our Canadian Lutheran World Relief Global Encounter group began the day with an Israeli guide. He had been an officer in the national police force and provided some perspective from the Israeli point of view.

He showed us Israeli communities which had been under attack in both 1948 and 1967 and resulting Israeli response. In a discussion of the wall, known as the security barrier to Israelis and separation barrier to Palestinians, he told us that Israelis feel much more secure because of its presence. He admitted that many knew it caused inconvenience to Palestinians. In fact he mentioned how it could be even more than an inconvenience. The example he used was a woman giving birth at home who encountered complications and required emergency care might be only a few minutes away from a hospital but might be 45 minutes or more away because of the barrier, and that might be too long.

We were then taken to Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem. The difference between Israeli communities was stark. There were no sidewalks, no sewer service, limited or no water service even though these people paid taxes. He estimated that only about 10% of their taxes were returned in infrastructure improvements.

Schools were a particular problem. Our guide said the government’s estimate was that there was shortage of about 1,000 classrooms for Palestinian children in Jerusalem. When you consider the average class size is about 40 children, there is a large number receiving inadequate or no education at all.

We then travelled to the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for an interfaith dialogue and panel discussion. Surely this three-way discussion between a Jewish representative from the Council for Jewish and Christian Relations, a Palestinian Christian member of parliament and Muslim intellectual would bring us some signs of hope for solutions to the disturbing problems in this part of the world. Not so.

While there is discussion taking place through earnest and sincere dialogue, the general feeling was that it was not really going anywhere. All agreed that the problem is that religious leaders are not decision makers. While similar dialogue in our North American setting brings understanding between communities, such is not the case in the Middle East. For us it is much easier since we work, play and pray in the same community but with the political realities in the Middle East, such familiarity is not possible.

They said religion is not doing what it is supposed to do.

The Palestinian Christian said, “We can only be free when we are able to be ourselves, rather than labelled as Jew or Muslim.” He added, “labelling people leads to each one stereotyping the other.” There is no common ground for interreligious discussion but that does not mean that it shouldn’t continue to take place. All three agreed to this.

-Tom Brook

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