At a time when religion seems to be tearing people apart rather than uniting them, some religious leaders in Jerusalem have been working to create a temporary interfaith gathering place where people of all faiths can come together to pray and sing in their own traditions alongside one another — and even argue — while learning about the faith traditions of other people.
“As Christians, it is very easy to see danger in the Middle East, and we want to protect ourselves, but that is not the message of Jesus. He says we have a mission to contribute to society,” said Father Rafic, Jerusalem parish priest of the Hebrew speaking Catholic community and one of the religious leaders taking part in the project. Despite his convictions of interreligious unity, he is also a realist, and so because he is originally from one of the neighboring Arab countries, he requested his last name not be used in order to protect his family still living there. “We want to contribute to the society in which we live and show that we can be together and respect one another and turn to God together. Christians can also be a bridge between people.”
The initiative “Amen — a House of Prayer for All Believers” is the culmination of two years of work and study among religious leaders and their communities, with the joint study expanding and taking on more intensity over the past six months.
The event is to take place Sept. 4-11 as part of the larger Jerusalem Season of Culture festival. “Amen” will seek to bring together Christians, Jews and Muslims who share a belief in one God and a love for Jerusalem to dialogue, study, sing and pray together in one temporary house of worship.
The venue, which will be inside a music center in the ancient Hinnom Valley facing the walls of the Old City, will be open from morning to night, with meetings and preparations for prayer taking place daily throughout the week in Arabic, Hebrew and Coptic.
“We want to show that it is not only possible (to pray together) but that we can be happy to do it, and especially in Jerusalem,” Father Rafic said. “Also to show that religiously it is interesting to learn together.”
Each religious leader, including a Coptic nun, a rabbi from an Israeli settlement as well as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from the Mizrahi (or North African and Middle Eastern) tradition invited guests to come from their wider circle of acquaintances, and all visitors are encouraged to drop in freely.
“As Catholics, Jesus asks from us to give to the other without fear and in unity. Pope Francis very much emphasizes the going toward the other, those who are different than us,” Father Rafic said.
The initiating force behind the endeavor is Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the rabbi of a young, nondenominational Jerusalem synagogue. The synagogue and Father Rafic’s Catholic parish had been studying religious texts together once a month for two years before they joined forces with other religious leaders to support the “Amen” project.
“We felt that we needed to bring the conversation of our religions to people of all different faiths together — especially in Jerusalem, to bring a light to Jerusalem, to bless Jerusalem,” Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum said. “We wanted to connect in the language of prayer and share our world and our ancient language of prayer with each other. It will be a beautiful interaction.”
Alongside the responsibility of prayer, she said, people of faith also have the responsibility of believing in that which seems impossible. It is in that realm that they decided to meet, she said.
“We hope that this will launch a new tradition in Jerusalem. … There are many languages of faith and they are very ancient,” Elad-Appelbaum said. “It is an ancient dream to meet with each other despite our differences — and within those differences, to see what happens especially now, especially in Jerusalem, and to put a voice to that.”
A lot of thought and planning has gone into creating the proper atmosphere, space and program that will be inviting to everybody of all faiths and beliefs, Father Rafic said, including what religious symbols were to be present in the space, he said, but that is of lesser concern. What is important is to learn to be united despite their differences, Father Rafic said.
“My religious identity does not come from whether there is a cross or a Star of David,” he said. “Religious identity comes from within people. More important than putting objects in the space is the presence of people at prayer.”
Each day will be dedicated to one theme involving the main idea of “The One God,” such as forgiveness, friendship and love, with each faith taking one topic and presenting on it on specific days.
Participants will also have the opportunity to engage together in one another’s prayer traditions during Friday Muslim afternoon prayer, Friday evening Jewish Sabbath prayer and Catholic Sunday mass.
“The religious leaders who are heading up this project grappled with contentious issues and looked deeply into each other’s souls in an effort to seek out commonality rather than divisiveness,” said Naomi Bloch Fortis, executive director of The Jerusalem Season of Culture. “They … refuse to limit themselves to their own personal camp or to restrict themselves to their comfort zone. They challenge themselves, their world outlooks, and are ready at any time to serve as an example and work toward a more positive and pluralistic future for the city.”
Sheikh Ihab Balaha from the coastal city of Jaffa said he became involved in the project from his deep belief in the need for people from all walks of life to be united in the face of globalization.
“We Jews, Muslims and Christians must love God together and pray to God together,” Balaha said. “Every person who dies (in attacks), whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, is a great tragedy. My real identity is my actions, not my religion. God looks to your actions. Prayer is the ceremony. Actions are your intentions. To be unified is to say that we can do something else; there is a possibility for something else. If I can accept Jews, Christians and Muslims, then I am really accepting all of God’s creations. If I do not believe in Judaism and Christianity, then I cannot be a Muslim.”
‘We have to make peace’
Although many of the regions conflicts appear to be caused by religious extremism, Balaha said, what has been lacking in attempts to find political solutions to regional conflicts is the true spiritual aspect. Culture has used religion for their own objectives, he said, perverting the true intentions of religion.
“Religion is for always; politics change. We have to move forward from true religion to make peace. We do not want war. God has created all of us,” he said.
They have no illusions that their initiative will create a “revolution.” The joint house of prayer is just one tiny step, but if they touch the heart of even one person who may not have otherwise come together in prayer or discussion with another of a different religion, then they will have succeeded.
“This won’t be a prayer that will change the whole world. That is not what we are expecting,” Father Rafic said. “But it is better to be doing something than nothing. It will be a very simple prayer. We have invited a wide range of people, and we are praying that God will slowly help something of this spirit and will pass it on to our communities. We have to do something humble, and we can’t know what it will bring, but I think God is there, and he will do his part, and we will do ours. This does not belong to us; it is bigger than us.”
Though they hope such an event will not provoke violence or the ire of extremists of any kind, they also are aware of the reality in which they live, noting that violence in Jerusalem can happen anywhere and at any time.
“There will always be opponents, and others may think this is a betrayal, but I think differently,” Balaha said. “I also think that there are lots of people who know deep in their heart that we have to make peace and they know the truth.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.