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‘Dialogue’ at the heart of Coordination discussions

DSC_0008Discussions during the Holy Land Coordination conference on Monday afternoon, January 10th were on Religious Freedom, and Interreligious Dialogue was the theme for Tuesday’s meetings.

Mr. Matthew Welch, head of the U.S. Consulate for Religious Affairs and Human Rights, spoke on religious freedom in Israel and the Palestinian territories according to the report of the Department of State (to read report click here). He presented some historical background on religious freedom, before discussing the difficulties of Palestinian Christians to access the holy places, and the complicated visa application process for religious missions in the Palestinian Territories.

Interreligious Dialogue was discussed lengthily, with speakers presenting on the relations of local Christians with Muslims and Jews. 

Dr. Yousef Al-Ehremi, a Muslim from Bethlehem spoke of his experience and feelings regarding dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He first expressed sadness and shame for the recent massacres in Iraq and Egypt.

“Dialogue is not negotiation,” he said, “for negotiation has a fixed duration, while dialogue is done every day.” He emphasized that Islam has different interpretations in different places and people, and that the worst obstacles to dialogue are ignorance and distrust. Many Muslims, especially in the Gulf, perceive dialogue as an attempt to convert people to Christianity. He has acknowledged that the followers of Islam never take the first step when it comes to dialogue with Christians.

Finally, he spoke of the Israeli occupation as an evil that undermines the dialogue, but at the same time unites Christians and Muslims in their suffering and difficulties.

H.B. Michel Sabbah, Patriarch Emeritus, presented his viewpoint on this broad issue (to read his speech, click here).  He recalled that the history between the two religions is marked by conflict, often armed, but also by periods of collaboration, as was the case in Spain, during the Caliphate of Cordoba.


“Despite past difficulties, life in the Holy Land unfolds rather well in the Holy Land,” as the Patriarch Emeritus, “particularly among the, civil and religious authorities who are responsive to the needs of Christians.” He also noted that many institutions encourage this dialogue. As for daily life, Islamic extremism is sometimes an obstacle to good mutual understanding. “The politicized Islam’s influence on society is growing, especially in the territories and in Gaza,” he said.

Patriarch Sabbah has particularly stressed on the membership of local Christians to the Palestinian people and the mission of these within their society, their country. “Being a Christian is a mission we bring a message. Emigration involves two things: give up the land and this vocation, ” he said.

Other presenters were Father David Neuhaus of the Hebrew Speaking Catholic Vicariate, and Mrs. Hannah H, a representative of the Jewish community, who both spoke oon the Jewish-Christian relations. 

In the afternoon, the Holy Land Coordination participants went to Ramallah, for a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

To view pictures of the Coordination events on Flicker, click here