Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop 4:15 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am both delighted and humbled to follow the masterly exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Wright. Today, I was wondering whether to speak on Iraq or on Israel/Palestine, but the noble Lord's contribution has enabled us to see the two in very clear connection and we are most grateful.

I am also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, not only for initiating the debate but also for the very moving way in which she introduced it. Sadly, a number of us could provide examples similar to the stories that she gave so movingly today. The sadness is that there is no shortage of examples such as those to quote.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness for making it clear that to be critical of the Government of Israel is not necessarily to be anti-Semitic. That, I believe, is a lie that needs to be nailed again and again. I remind your Lordships that the word "Semitic" is a generic term. It applies to peoples and languages across a broad region. Whatever else the relationship may be between the Jews and the Arabs, they are, at the very least, first cousins, if not brothers, both in terms of their language and their culture.

I want to say something today about the religious elements of the Middle East conflict and something about the importance of inter-faith dialogue. I speak about the religious elements in this conflict as, in a sense, a professional. As a professional, I want to say at the outset that I believe that religion can be an incredibly dangerous and tyrannical force when it is wrongly used. We see examples of that in many different parts of the world, and there is no shortage of examples of it in the Middle East situation that we are addressing today.

Riah Abu El-Assal is the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem. He was born an Arab, a Christian and a Palestinian. He is still an Arab and a Christian, but his passport tells him that he is now an Israeli citizen. That is because the town in which he was born changed its status in about 1947–48. For some time, and until fairly recently, a considerable number of Arabs within the state of Israel were also Christians but most have now left. They have done so for a variety of reasons, some of which are quite complex. But there seems to be a single thread running through all those who have emigrated from that part of the world. It concerns their inability to live with what they describe as a "hybrid" identity in a situation where polarisation has taken place to such a point that they no longer find themselves with any place at all. One is either an Israeli or an Arab; and one is either Jewish or a Muslim.

Bishop Riah cannot bring himself to speak of Israel/Palestine as the Holy Land—a term which many of us westerners use with nostalgia, and perhaps with sentimentality, to describe the place of the birth of Jesus. At best, Bishop Riah can speak only of the "Land of the Holy One". He asserts, not only that holiness is a moral and spiritual quality, most appropriately used of persons rather than places, but also that the actions taking place on his soil are anything but holy.

And yet there is no escaping the fact that so much of the territory in question is regarded as sacred by adherents of all the three Abrahamic faiths, who regard this plot of land—that is no bigger than the size of Wales, a former Prime Minister reminded us—as their spiritual home. These so-called "holy sites", not least those in Jerusalem, form part of the ongoing territorial dispute, not least because they are regarded as having supreme religious significance for all—or in some cases for just one—of the faith communities.

It is for this reason that I wish to plead for a better understanding of the religious issues that form an integral part of the Middle East conflict. Just one month ago the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, spoke of the religious dimension in the peace process, as one which,

"threatens to transform what is essentially a political and territorial conflict into an ideological one, and one that will be even more difficult to resolve".

That kind of scenario certainly seems to apply to some Muslim extremists as well as to some Christian Zionists. They claim divine authority for the violent acts of aggression or for the criminal acts of murder that are perpetrated. That same divine authority is often claimed by those who are settlers on the West Bank.

When Sheikh Yassin was assassinated last week, he was on his way home from morning prayer. While it is true that he was a terrorist leader, it is equally true that on the ground, among his own people, he was regarded as a spiritual leader. There is no escaping that fact. To acknowledge that simply serves to heighten the religious dimension of this conflict.

It was in an attempt to address such extremism that the Alexandria process was set up. After considerable preparatory work by the International Centre for Reconciliation in Coventry, and by Canon Andrew White in particular, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, now the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, chaired a three-day meeting in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

This meeting was attended by senior religious leaders representing the three Abrahamic faiths in Israel/Palestine. It was co-chaired by the Grand Immam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi. The resulting declaration contained a joint condemnation of all violence in the name of religion, and a call for implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet recommendations.

In the weeks following this declaration of January 2002, tension increased on the West Bank, with IDF operations in Jenin and other refugee camps. The most acute tension centred on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and significant numbers of those religious leaders who had taken part in the Alexandria consultation were actively involved in the eventual resolution of that stand-off.

One of the most moving long-term consequences of the Alexandria consultation has been the deep friendships across traditional boundaries. Michael Melchior is a Jewish rabbi and a former deputy Foreign Minister in the Israeli Government. Sheikh Tal al-Sidr was a founder member of Hamas; he is now a peace activist in Hebron. These two men now embrace each other publicly as brothers, acknowledging the shared roots of their faith and risking constant opprobrium from their more extreme compatriots.

Sheikh Tal al-Sidr spoke last year at the German Kirchentag, and he was proud to declare:

"Rabbi Michael is my brother and we will walk this long and difficult path of reconciliation together. We can only walk it together. And as we walk our task is to pull up the thorns and to plant flowers for those who will come after".

Religion can be a terrible master, but genuine faith can be a dynamic liberator into a fuller experience of what it means to be human. As I end, I can do no better than to quote the exhortation of the psalmist that we should,

"pray for the peace of Jerusalem".