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Living Your Faith, The Vatican

‘Sanctuary’ of interfaith dialogue in Holy Land

  • Judith Sudilovsky, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • October 30 2015
Debbie Hill

The Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem provides a safe haven in a tumultuous environment

On a hilltop near Bethlehem, there is a place where, even in these troubled times, Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians, can come together to learn, study, discuss and even disagree in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.

According to its website, the Tantur Ecumenical Institute “serves as a welcoming place in the Holy Land for visitors who come from all over the world.”

“People see Tantur as a place that is safe to meet, a bit of a crossroads,” said Tantur rector Father Russell McDougall, sitting in the dining room balcony which overlooks Bethlehem to the south, the Arab Jerusalem village of Beit Tzafafa to the north, and the Israeli Jerusalem areas of Gilo and Har Homa — seen as neighborhoods by Israelis and as settlements by Palestinians because they were built on lands confiscated from the villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour — to the west and east, respectively.

Reflecting on the interfaith character of the institute, Father McDougall expresses the role of Tantur by recounting a Jewish mystical tradition maintaining that throughout human history there are 36 righteous souls whose good deeds on behalf of humanity keep the world from falling apart.

“We can keep people talking; together, we can do our part to be part of those 36 people who keep things from falling apart,” he said.

Commingling of faiths

Inspired by Vatican II and Blessed Pope Paul VI’s historic meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in the Holy Land in 1964, religious leaders, including Paul VI, envisioned Tantur as an in-residence international ecumenical institute for theological research and pastoral studies for individual scholars. The institute quickly evolved to include an interfaith aspect whereby students are exposed to Jewish and Muslim beliefs by local lecturers via a number of short- and long-term courses that allow visitors to deepen their understanding of the history, culture and people of the Holy Land.

But in addition to hosting conferences and opening their doors to people of all faiths from abroad, Tantur also is among one of the only venues in Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians can meet in an open and nonthreatening environment.

“We are not alone in our work,” said Father McDougall, who has been involved in ecumenical and interfaith work in his previous positions in the U.S. and in Africa. “And though it may seem like our efforts do not produce much fruit ... I try to remember notes of encouragement from our tradition. Such as when Jesus was faced with 5,000 people and he was asked by the disciples how they had to feed them with only five loaves and two fish. What are these in front of so many?”

‘Open venue’

Tantur serves or has served as host for various Israeli-Palestinian groups such as: Seeds of Peace and Kids4Peace, coexistence groups for children; Combatants for Peace, which brings together former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters; a Palestinian-Israeli women’s empowerment group; and starting in late November, a Slim Peace group that will see Israeli and Palestinian women coming together in an eight-week weight-loss program that will use Tantur’s facilities as its home base. Also recently, and discreetly, a group of Palestinian and Israeli physicians met at Tantur over two days to discuss issues of mutual professional interest despite the recent flare-up in the conflict.

“People bring up difficult questions, but at least here they speak about them civilly,” Father McDougall said. “Part of it is people getting to know each other, and that makes a difference. They meet people as people and first recognize the basic goodness, so they have a relationship. Of course, the (problems) are so much bigger than these meetings, but they help build a relationship between people so they see each other as human beings.”

Al-Quds University professor Mustafa Abu Sway began his relationship with Tantur Ecumenical Institute as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, and today, he is primarily a lecturer on introductory Islamic studies.

“There is an organic link between knowledge and bridge-building. I believe that I am a bridge builder across all cultural divides,” he said. “I am a staunch anti-clash of civilization person who believes that civilization is cumulative. When there is a conflict, it is because political leaders decided to go war, and there is no better example than occupation. Interfaith dialogue is the best solution for conflicts, especially when it is accompanied by a theology of justice. Tantur provides a very open venue for the exchange of ideas, and I am grateful for my role as an educator.”

Hope in working together

Loreto Sister Anastasia Kiriongi, from Kenya, who is participating in a study group at Tantur, noted that because of the proximity to Bethlehem, they have heard the gunfire from the clashes with Israeli soldiers and smelled the tear gas as well. At the same time, she has seen the Israeli security build up in Jerusalem as a reaction to the recent stabbing attacks there.

“The different interfaith speakers here have really opened my eyes, and I am ready to receive and understand. I didn’t expect so much interfaith connection with Muslims and Jews,” she said.

“Tantur offers an opportunity to meet people from the two sides of the conflict and see the complexity of the conflict,” Presentation Sister Anne Jordan of Australia said. “We are exposed to a whole range of different people.”

Father Philip Perreau from Perth, Australia noted that through its program of studies, Tantur allows people not only to have a spiritual experience but also to learn to recognize the land as important to many religions.

“There is always a need for working together, to make sure everyone’s rights are respected and everybody has the chance to live and worship in their own way,” Father Perreau said. “Bringing in different speakers helps us as participants see that our faith experience is more than just prayer to God, but it is living it out in respect to other people of different faith religions ... where we show love to God and our neighbors no matter who they are.”

The work of Tantur, although it brings together people who are already open to dialogue, can “be the seed from which other things can happen,” Father Perreau said. “It is a place where moderates can come and see what they can do. For anything to happen, you need moderates to get together.”

Recalling that during the Second Intifada uprising more than a decade ago, participation in Tantur’s study and dialogue programs were hard hit, but Father McDougall said they would continue to do what they are able to do.

Quoting Lutheran Bishop Munib A. Younan, Father McDougall added: “As Christians, we have to be people of hope. I am not very optimistic about an easy solution, but I am hopeful.”


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