A few weeks ago I joined a group of bishops from around the world on their annual trip to Israel and Palestine. The purpose of the visit was to learn about life on the ground of the Christian minority, show our solidarity with them and to the population in general.
This year we focused our efforts on the youth — listening to their voices and engaging them on their hopes and concerns. We met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth, Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Their responses shared a common theme: We live in the shadow of a conflict that we did not create and do not want, and we desire peace, above all.
Amid physical walls, mounting fear and suspicion, there is good news that brings hope for future change. Here is one example:
We met two young men from the Parents Circle Families Forum, a group of more than 600 families. Both men were under 30 years old; one Palestinian and one Israeli. Both lost a family member due to the conflict. Instead of falling into despair or turning to violence and blame, they found commonality by connecting through their pain. They now work together to show that differences in religion, race and nationality don’t need to create division, but rather they can be assets in building friendship and peace.
I came back to Canada in time for the commemoration of the first anniversary of the Québec City mosque shooting that took place on Jan. 29, 2017. Since then, there has not only been a rise in acts of racism, intolerance and discrimination toward Muslims all over the country, but also toward Jews and, yes, Christians too. How do we end these actions of hate in our country? I believe the answer is through dialogue and an understanding of differences.
We can learn from people who experience a deep divide in their society, such as the two men I met from Israel and Palestine. We, too, need dialogue and create opportunities in Canada to encounter each other.
A few groups already exist to do just this. For instance, four years ago, a small group of Christians and Muslims in the city of Gatineau, Que., decided to create a space for dialogue and understanding, and I joined them. At first, Muslims and Christians sat on opposite sides of the table, debating each other’s beliefs; however, it evolved into something much more precious: friendship. Now the group organizes public events and invites people to get out of their comfort zone and join in these important encounters. Our country can benefit from more initiatives like this.
We often forget that the Middle East has centuries of experience in dealing with different faiths, cultures and nationalities. Despite current conflicts, they have a lot to teach us. At CNEWA, we have spent the past 90 years in the region establishing programs that accompany the local Catholic church in creating opportunities for people of all faiths to encounter each other in non-threatening ways. Over the past decades, we’ve seen these encounters create paths toward understanding and dialogue that, despite the politics of divide, forges mutual respect and the desire for a lasting peace for all.
In my many trips to Israel and Palestine, I’ve seen many people go against the tide, working to build this lasting peace. It takes courage to face our differences and share with each other, but when we do, we discover that we have more in common with each other than we realize.
Here in Canada, this is a newer reality for us. The world has changed and we need to learn from our friends of the Middle East. Many people have come here to escape violence and to live in peace. Let’s make sure this becomes a reality for them.
Hétu is national director, Catholic Near East Welfare Association.