For several years, Musalaha has endeavored to build bridges between Palestinian Muslim and Christian leaders from the Bethlehem area through facilitating desert encounters, conducting training, and many other activities. It was with great success that these leaders not only formed relationships, but they also continued to work together in resolving local conflicts and implementing joint projects. From these achievements, we wanted to move forward to see how these leaders could have a greater impact in other areas of their society.
When we informed people about the next phase of our bridge building work it was met with great enthusiasm, especially among those who hold prominent leadership positions in the community. We then invited 30 Opinion Shapers for a two-day training to discuss future steps and how to effect change in the community.
During the first part of the weekend, the participants were divided into two groups and were asked to assess their situation as Muslims and Christians by conducting a “SWOT analysis”, which is a planning tool that is used to assess potential strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a project.
The Christian group saw themselves as strongly connected to the land, and specifically Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. They also placed a strong emphasis on education as they have many educational institutions within the community. At the same time, they saw that there was a lack of Christian representatives on an institutional leadership level, a victim mentality among the Christian community, and little commitment to the church and the people .
The Muslims perceived their strength as a majority group in the community with a strong national commitment, especially with the existence of the clan system. Following a lively discussion by the group on what “true Islam” is, they noted that among their weaknesses, their knowledge of Islam is limited. They do not have many educational institutions, which they indicated makes their youth more susceptible to being influenced by extreme groups within society.
Both sides saw the political situation as a threat, but the Christian group emphasized that the rise of radical religious groups and the interference of external political powers are often perceived as dividing the two communities. Though the current situation has become more polarized, these opinion shapers have great hope to tackle this challenge as well as many of the obstacles that have arisen due to the current political reality and the upsurge of religious extremism in the country.
It was encouraging to see that this group of leaders decided to take action to influence their community. They recommended promoting religious tolerance within the schools by influencing school curriculums, and making an effort to learn about the other. They also saw the urgency to organize public lectures and raise awareness to counter religious intolerance. A week before Christmas, the group organized a lecture where they learned about the birth of Jesus as it appears in the gospel. A Muslim leader also presented the Islamic view of the birth of Jesus. For the Muslims, it was the first time for them to read from the Gospels. The meeting was following by a question and answer session and further discussion.
The most exciting project from this group is that they will produce short videos about religious extremism, with the aim of creating awareness and understanding in the community. They will be promoted on social media as well as aired on local Palestinian television networks.
With eager anticipation, we look forward to seeing how these leaders will tackle the many issues they face and have a deep impact on their community.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D.