Holy Wars, Holy Solutions

Religion's two-edged role in Palestinian-Israeli conflict

What's remarkable about the recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians are all the attacks in the name of religion - and against another religion.

Previous conflicts were focused more on Israel's security and Palestinian nationalism. In that kind of secular struggle, little empathy could be expected for the other side's suffering. The task of reaching a peace would be just a matter of dealmaking between selfish interests. That was the basis for the 1993 Oslo accords.

But over the past year, as the peace talks have finally reached the issue of who controls Jerusalem's holy sites, religious feelings have erupted in this cradle of three faiths.

Those feelings have been made all the stronger because fundamentalist Islam has been gaining ground among Palestinians, as well as in many other Muslim societies, such as Egypt, Indonesia, and Morocco.

Now, the goal of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital has become a global Islamic cause, and not just an ethnic battle between Jews and Palestinians over a few parcels of land.

Diplomacy's limits

Fortunately, much of that new-found faith is nonmilitant. And the secular politicians running the peace process have overlooked this peaceful Islamic revival.

They've especially ignored the opportunity to appeal to the principled teachings of Islam to help overcome the outrage, frustration, fear, and hopelessness among Palestinians.

Jews and Muslims alike can look deeper into their respective faiths to see that every human being is equal before God, and should be treated equally.

The path to peace may now lie in the faithful on both sides reaching for such common ground, and expressing it in small ways - in homes and on the streets. Violence and self-destructiveness, even in the name of religion, is not what's needed.

Diplomacy has reached its limit unless it now attends to the religious needs of individuals on both sides.

The recent violence can serve not just as a reminder of a need for peace, but as a call for more faith and understanding.

Even if a peace deal ends up totally separating Jews and Palestinians with more fences and checkpoints, there's still a need for reconciliation between peoples and their joint claims to land under their holiest sites.

Empathy toward the other

Neither side would be seeking peace so earnestly unless it had faith in humanity and in the potential goodness of the other.

Just last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak welcomed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his home for a dinner, where they shared a few laughs. Such a small gesture shows the potential for compassion beyond all the stone-throwing and bullets, and especially beyond the tribal-like passions of hate.

And after decades of ignoring the Palestinians' plight, Israel has begun to teach children in textbooks about how Israel's violent creation in 1948 made victims out of the Palestinians.

Shrines as symbols

Honoring the other's claims to holy sites would be an expression of respect for the other's faith, and an expression of one's own.

Palestinians refer to this uprising as the al-Aqsa intifada, named for the mosque near Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, where they believe Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The violence began in response to the technically legal but politically provocative visit to the area by Israeli hard-line leader Ariel Sharon on Sept. 28. To Jews, the site is the Temple Mount, the sacred site of their ancient First and Second Temples.

For days, each side attacked the other's religious sites, perceiving them as symbols of intrusion on their land. Such actions will make it all the more difficult to find a way to share the holiest sites in Jerusalem under a peace pact.

But they point to the need to deal with the underlying religious concerns - and to appeal to the higher teachings of each religion. The historic demands for control of religious shrines are meaningless unless they are based on each faith's demand for toleration, compassion, and understanding.

Perhaps the virtue most needed right now is patience. Not all political differences are easily split. Ending the violence and continuing the peace talks are necessary steps.

But they are secondary to each side working to understand the other's concerns out of a genuine embrace of its own faith.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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