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At a recent meeting of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, I saw many pictures of the recent two-week trip to Israel and Palestine. It brought back many memories of my first Interfaith Trip to the area in 2007. The trip is one of the best, I have ever made. Followers of many faiths visiting the area with rich history made it much more meaningful. The reflections from this group were practically the same, we had.

The second trip to the area consisted of 26 people representing different branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The purpose of this recent interfaith trip according to David Oughton, the chair of the Interfaith Partnership, was to learn about the importance of this land for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha’is; to better understand the challenges faced by different groups, and to appreciate the current efforts by some people of different religions to promote peace and justice in this part of the world.

Both trips have been more than just sightseeing; the groups attended religious services in many synagogues, churches, mosques, and shrines. They had meetings with Jewish Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians living in the West Bank. These interactions help you to understand the history of different faiths, their intertwined history, and cultures.

The three Abrahamic and Baha’i faiths have many sacred places in the area.

In Haifa, the group visited the Shrine of the Bab and the Baha’i World Center. In Akko, visiting the final resting place of the prophet Baha’u’llah, they visited the Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre which runs programs for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students. Mohammed Fahili started this Center many years ago, which brings understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths.

Shabbat services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, visiting Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock were spiritual experiences for some and for some first visit to sacred places for other faiths.

Both groups have toured Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (Arabic and Hebrew for “oasis of peace”) which is a community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where families of Jews, Christians, and Muslims choose to live as neighbors with each other and run interfaith educational programs for their children and peace programs for adults.

I will never forget the experience of one of the Muslim leaders in this area. He, like other neighbors in the area was so pleased with the community and its accomplishments. During the second Intifada, he was shocked when his young son declared, “I want to join the people who are throwing stones on Jewish people.” Father responded after a deep thought, “Why do you need to go far away — you can throw stones on your Jewish neighbors?” The son replied, “Oh no, these are nice people and my friends, the soldiers bring me chocolates too. I will not hurt them.”

A little child spoke in simple words, the wisdom we know, but mostly don’t practice. Know the people, it will clear the misunderstandings, improve relationships and may avert violence.

The group had meetings with Orthodox and Reform rabbis, the chief Muslim judge of the Sharia court, Baha’i leaders, an Orthodox Christian archbishop, and the Catholic bishop of Jerusalem. This is probably one of the best part of Interfaith trips that you get to meet leaders of different faiths and have very meaningful discussion. Many of the attendees of the trip alluded to these cherished memories.

Visiting the monuments, shopping areas, restaurants would evoke many stares. I was asked by a shopkeeper, “How come Muslims, Jewish and Christians are visiting together? And you are laughing together!!!” When we explained that it was an Interfaith Trip from USA, the shopkeeper shrugged his shoulder, “Only in America.” Sister Carla Mae of Aquinas Institute of Theology stated, “To see a group mixing so happily shows a possibility, and offers a challenge to those who think it to be impossible.”

Lenny Frankel, of Conservative Judaism commented, “Although I have been to Israel many times before, I’ve never experienced the people and places I was able to visit and interact with on this trip.  I had a varied and interesting itinerary that allowed me to visit, meet, listen to leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Baha’i and Jewish faiths and go to many sites the average tourist does not see.” 

The trip also brought some painful memories to the forefront; the group commented on many checkpoints going to the West Bank, reminding that all parties have to work hard to achieve peace in this one of the most sacred places on the earth. Yad Vashem visit; a stark reminder the devastation racism can evoke and the world should not let its guards down. Nan Breier commented, “In addition to feelings of wonder, I feel a sense of sadness that despite the religious and spiritual richness of this part of the world, humans are still unable to achieve a balance of compassion and understanding that engenders hope of peaceful and respectful co-existence.”

Interfaith trips in a small way bring positive changes in interfaith interactions here and abroad. We should have many more sponsored trips to help bridge the gaps in understandings.

Hayat serves as chair of the public relations committee of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.