[ACNS source: Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem] More than thirty young Christian theologians came together in Jerusalem last month to explore avenues of dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Theologians from England, Scotland, the United States, Russia, Romania, Armenia, Sweden, Germany, South Africa, Malawi and Palestine, came for a two-week visit to Palestine, Israel and Jordan. The Programme was prepared by the Ecumenical Forum for Young Theologians; a ministry of the diocese of Jerusalem that brings together Christians from the worldwide family of Churches and has set itself the task of exploring the challenges to today's church by fostering dialogue at a grassroots level. During their time in the Holy Land, participants were able to meet not only Christian Church leaders - among them the Latin and Armenian-Orthodox Patriarchs of Jerusalem and the Lutheran, Maronite, Syria-Orthodox, and Anglican Bishops in Jerusalem - but also members of the beleaguered Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Bir Zeit, Ramallah, Nablus and Jericho. During a short visit to Jordan they were received in Aqaba by Her Royal Highness Princess Basma of Jordan as guests of His Excellency, Mr Akel Bultaji. Princess Basma paid tribute to those who had travelled from afar and, as an observant Muslim, reiterated the need for searching dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths.
The two key sponsors of the programme were the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, and Judeh Majaj, General Secretary of the East Jerusalem YMCA. Bishop Riah called on all people of faith to take seriously the ministry of peace and reconciliation. "I keep on saying: One of the great blessings of being the member of a faith community is the act of coming together," Bishop Riah pointed out. This was particularly the case for those engaged in the critical dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. YMCA Secretary General Mr Majaj encouraged those attending to dig deep into their faith and to lead the Church by their own example: "the global vision of the YMCA is the holistic development of youth," Mr Majaj said. "Indeed, the youth are among the most marginalized in Palestine right now." He added, "That is why the idea of gathering young theologians is wonderful and something I encourage greatly."
The Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, curate of Upton-cum-Chalvey (Slough) and the British co-coordinator of the study programme, explained, "One of the central aims of the programme was to expose participants to the practicalities of dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths. We were overwhelmed of the local Christian community, and the real depth of encounter with Muslims and Jews." During their time in the Holy Land, the theologians were able to meet members of the local Jewish community for joint Biblical exegesis at an orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem, and visited the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem as well as a Reform Synagogue. They were also given the opportunity to meet local Muslim leaders engaged in a reconciliation project that brings together Christians, Druze, Jews and Muslims in Galilee, and were received by Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the guardian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Their meetings were not only restricted to theological dialogue, but included the experience of sharing in an Islamic meditation of Dhikr (remembrance) in the Sufi tradition, and the celebration of a Shabat supper.
During the course of the programme, it became increasingly clear that the political dimension that stands at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians also underpins the practical dialogue between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Participants visited Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, met with settlers, and observed the building of the nine-metre high separation wall that separates Palestinian communities from the rest of the Occupies Territories, and Israel. Only days after the Israeli cabinet decision to expel Palestinian President Mr Yasser Arafat from Ramallah, they were given a first-hand experience of the tension in the city when passing through the chanting crowds that had gathered as a human shield in order to meet the president in the ruins of his compound. Bishop Riah, who led the visit, commented, "We were welcome by someone who is unwelcome to the Israelis, at a time when people sought his expulsion. But lasting peace cannot be brought about by expelling people, only by the end of the occupation and a clear commitment to the United Nations resolutions."
The Programme provoked profound reaction from the visitors to the Holy Land. Canon Julia Butterworth, a participant from Canterbury Diocese, reflected, "I keep turning the words of a Sufi Sheikh whom we met in his home on the Via Dolorosa: 'Jerusalem is the heart of the world. If the heart is sick, the whole world will feel it.' This leads for me the ongoing reflection on the coming together in prayer of the three religions who look to Jerusalem, and our political and social action to heal God's world."
The gathering of the young theologians did not only touch the visitors but also affected the local Christian community. The Revd Yazeed Said, Palestinian co-coordinator of the programme and Acting Dean of Saint George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, emphasised, "Events like our study programme help he Christian community to face theological challenges, which create in them a greater capacity for theological learning. Hence, more commitment for their local Palestinian Church is sown." Father Said concluded, 'It is most important that we create a solid network of support in the months to come; but in order for us to succeed we need the support of the wider church to help sustain this vital, ongoing theological dialogue. Such activities are there to help he Church do what it needs to do in the first place, that is to think theologically, reflect critically in the light of Crucified, and grow prayerfully for the sake of others'.
An office will be established in Jerusalem to maintain the work of this Forum for the future, which will require continuous financial and moral support.