It is now a week since the interfaith pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine and it‚s still hard to process my thoughts on the experience.
A very positive and heart-warming aspect of the pilgrimage‚ was the opportunity to spend time with fellow pilgrims and to meet peace activists from both sides of the wall‚ and the most challenging aspect of the pilgrimage was indeed the wall‚ with all its complex implications.
In my day to day work in interfaith I have often witnessed how profoundly deep dialogue can influence human relationships for the good, and there were many opportunities for such dialogue to take place between all of us on the pilgrimage. The friendships that evolved, the learning that took place and the heartfelt longing to contribute to both Scotland and the world at large can only augur well for future interfaith development.
However, there were times when I felt incredibly impotent when faced with the politics of a situation I barely understood. I found it heartbreaking to see the deserted streets of Hebron, to visit the divided and contested tomb of Abraham and to hear stories of Palestinian suffering, and it was equally heartbreaking to meet the parents of Israeli children who had been maimed or killed by suicide bombers. I am convinced that there can be no peace without justice and although it is hard to see a just way forward in this conflict‚ I am optimistic that there are enough people of good will on both sides to bring it about. Indeed we met so many of them on this trip; those working at One Voice‚ at the Centre for Non-Violence, Ibtisam and the women of the Abrahamic Reunion‚ Eliyahu (our amazing guide) and his friends at the Jerusalem Peace Centre, and so many religious leaders and citizens of both sides who are tirelessly working for change.
Seeing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum and remembering all those who suffered and died because of religious and ethnic hatred, including my husband's grandparents, shook me to the core and reminded me of why interfaith work, peace work and indeed all work that builds bridges and breaks down barriers is so important.
I am not sure what, if anything, our visit will have done for the peace process in Israel/Palestine but I do know that many people were deeply moved by seeing adherents of seven faiths, of all ages and background working together to promote greater understanding. We were a colorful and collaborative (and I believe controversial) collage of hope.
The younger members of the group were a constant reminder to me that there is hope for the future. Despite coming from very different backgrounds and perspectives they managed with dignity to discuss the controversies that raged around them. On returning I hope that each and every one of them will become ambassadors for interfaith work in Scotland. I know that they are just the kind of people to really make a positive difference - to be honest I just can't praise them enough.
There were times when the program was not quite balanced in the time allocated to the three main faith traditions, and I would have liked more daily time for reflection and discussion but despite this the program was intensely educational. I am sure it will continue for some time to stimulate discussion, reflection and hopefully positive action. I am certainly looking forward to working alongside my fellow Pilgrims‚ back in Scotland.
It was probably a brave and perhaps even foolhardy trip to organise and I am indebted to the organisers for having the courage to attempt something so challenging. I am also grateful to my own faith community for funding me to be part of the delegation. A personal and very moving highlight for me was to visit one of the Baha‚i Holy places in Haifa (The Shrine of the Bab) and to share something of the vision of my own faith community that the Great Peace towards which people of goodwill throughout the centuries have inclined their hearts, of which seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision, and for which from age to age the sacred scriptures of mankind have constantly held the promise, is now at long last within the reach of the nations. World peace is not only possible but inevitable.
Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p1).
The Holy Land has already experienced unimaginable horrors. I hope the time is ripe for something different.
Maureen Sier is the Development Officer of the Scottish Inter-Faith Council, and is currently seconded to the Scottish Government Equality Unit. She is the Baha'i representative on the World Religions for Peace European Women of Faith Network.