A report on our Muslim-Christian women’s groups

We often share with you regarding our work between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Messianic Jews.  But we have another area of work where we focus on bridge-building initiatives between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  In Romans 12, Paul calls us to live at peace with everyone.  Our role as the salt of the earth requires us to reach out to our community and deal with the prejudice, offense, and mending of relationships between us and others.  Many times when the relationship between Muslims and Christians is highlighted in the news, we hear about clashes and conflict.  In turn, we sometimes react with fear and suspicion of the other.  In the face of religious and ethnic conflict, we often turn inward instead of turning outward and making overtures toward the other side. 
 
Cardinal Francis Arinze addressed the issue of Christian-Muslim relations in an important talk given at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University nearly 15 years ago.  He emphasized that over half of the world’s population is either Christian or Muslim and that a good relationship between the two matters not only to Christians and Muslims but also the rest of the world.  In short, he gave several guidelines for desirable relations between these two religious communities: through better knowledge of the other, acceptance of the other and respect for differences, actual engagement in dialogue, joint witness to shared values, and joint promotion of peace.  He then detailed several obstacles and challenges: the weight of the past, lack of self-criticism, manipulation of religion by politics, religious fanaticism or extremism, different approaches to human rights and especially to religious freedom, and reciprocity.  Finally, he discussed some ways of meeting the challenges through: healing of historical memories, learning to exercise self-criticism, liberating religion from political manipulation, facing the phenomenon of religious extremism and promoting religious freedom, promotion of development and justice, more attention to the spiritual dimension, and joint concern over the use of the earth’s resources. 
 
While Cardinal Arinze’s talk was addressing the global Christian and Muslim communities and we are working with a very specific and local group of participants, we have nevertheless found Cardinal Arinze’s talk instructive in our bridge-building initiatives. In this short report, we would like to share our recent observations of positive relationship-building encounters in recent meetings in Bethlehem between 25 Muslim and Christian women. 
 
We met in the context of growing religious tension in the Israeli and Palestinian communities, and these women openly and candidly shared their perceptions of the other side.  We observed that it was easier for the women to list the obstacles and challenges than it was for them to articulate the importance of having a good relationship between the two communities. 
 
The women discussed the following obstacles and challenges:

Mixed marriage

– The Christian community of Bethlehem sees the marriage of Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem as very threatening to their small, minority community.

-  Many Palestinian Christian men study overseas for a number of years, and some Christian women have begun to marry Muslim men.

-  The Christian community sees Muslim men pursuing their women, but when there are instances of Christian men seeking to marry Muslim women, the Muslim reaction to this is much harsher than the Christian reaction to the opposite.

Religious prejudice

– Oftentimes Christians are not accepted to Muslim institutions (whether for work or for charity), while Christians are open to accepting Muslims into their charities and schools (but not as staff).  Also, there is a new phenomenon where Christians in Bethlehem prefer to buy only from Christian vendors, and Muslims only from Muslim vendors.

Exhibiting religious identity aggressively

– Due to increased religious radicalism, people are beginning to show off their religious identity to the point that they are making the other side uncomfortable.  For example, some Christian shops have so many crosses and icons hung up that Muslims feel that they are entering a church, not a store.  Likewise, many Muslim shops are increasingly being decorated with verses from the Quran.  Also, many Muslim women are dressing more conservatively as an outward expression of their religiosity.

Outside propaganda

– Religious channels on TV often broadcast Muslim and Christian shows from outside of the country that bring a message of intolerance, degrade the other religion, and often provide misinformation.  This has a detrimental effect on the relationship of the local communities.


The rise of Islamic political parties 

- In the past, national parties would bring both Christians and Muslims together.  Now, religious parties are becoming increasingly prevalent, which results in excluding members of the community. 

Discrimination in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

– The women discussed who the Israeli army favors more as evidenced by the number of permits Christians and Muslims receive.  Some of the women wondered if this is a strategy of “divide and rule” or if this is the result of one side’s collaboration with Israel, a very serious accusation in Palestinian society.  This affects the relationship between these two religious communities in Bethlehem.

Historical narrative

– Both sides emphasized the most hurtful parts of their narrative, which often exclude the other side.  The Muslim women focused on the Crusades and colonization while the Christians focused on Arab expansion and various massacres, such as the Armenian massacre.

Lack of information

– Both sides lack knowledge and information of the other, as is seen in their understanding of one another’s religion and history.
 
In the beginning, the women focused on how they hurt one another.  When they began exploring their commonalities, they found that there are many areas where they can work with each other.  Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem have many similar life challenges and can support each other if they have a relationship with one another.  The women saw the need to strengthen the areas of commonality between them, readily acknowledging their responsibility toward their neighbors, and noted that it is important not to let outside sources influence their relationship. 
 
What we gleaned from this meeting is that we have made progress in relationship building and communication, but there are still areas for growth and further discussion.  We found the meeting to be promising as the women openly communicated with one another and listened to each side voice their perceptions.  We were able to address some of Cardinal Arinze’s guidelines for desirable relations through beginning to get to know one another better, beginning to engage in dialogue, and realizing our shared life situation.  The women renewed their commitment to meeting together as they realized their communication empowers them to be agents of change in their society and helps them build bridges within their communities.
 
When faced with ethnic or religious conflict, we should engage with one another, listen to each other, and respectfully learn to make room for each other even when we do not agree on everything.  We see this all the time in our reconciliation initiatives between believers, and many of these same principles hold true in our bridge-building initiatives between other segments of society.  We are on a journey of reconciliation, and this journey is made with little steps in the right direction. 
 
By Salim J. Munayer, PhD
Musalaha Director