RITE AND REASON:Through their recent visit to the Middle East, Ireland's four main church leaders have challenged Irish Christians to identify with the suffering of people in that part of the world, writes SUSAN HOOD
DURING OUR own Troubles, the leaders of the four numerically-largest Christian denominations on the island regularly met, keeping lines of dialogue going and sharing pastoral concerns through the dark times of sectarian strife.
It was thus symbolic and appropriate in the context of all that has been achieved in Ireland, that last April, Cardinal Seán Brady, the then Methodist president Rev Roy Cooper, the then Presbyterian moderator Dr John Finlay, and Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, as leaders of those denominations, should have looked beyond Irish shores to identify with the plight of 200,000 Christians left in Israel/Palestine.
Most are indigenous Palestinians and the descendants of the earliest Christians in the world, now diminished to just 2 per cent of the overall population. "Isn't it just great they are going together," said a passer-by in Belfast city airport as the four church leaders checked in, before travelling as one on their historic venture.
Ireland is now seen around the world as a beacon of hope for peace-building and in the Middle East faith leadership is highly valued and respected.
The Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, which co-ordinates the local churches, described the Irish leaders as one of the most "highly valued and most meaningful" of delegations because they reached out to local people of all faiths: Christian, Muslim and Jew.
They listened to them, prayed with them and took part in the moving and broadcast ecumenical act of worship "Keeping Watch", a service of hope for peace at the Shepherd's Field near Bethlehem. It can be downloaded at http://www.rte.ie/radio/religion/Bethlehem2008.html.
It was the Irish leaders' capacity to listen that touched many hearts, demonstrating the natural peace-building skills acquired as a result of their own pastoral experience in Northern Ireland. They were humbled to witness the devastating effects of the Separation Wall, which has carved up the West Bank, dividing not only Palestinians from Israelis but also Palestinians from Palestinians.
And they heard heart-breaking stories about the lack of freedom of movement which imprisons many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the humiliation and loss of dignity that many experience due to the fact that "everything requires permission".
In one particularly moving encounter with representatives of the Parents and Family Circle - bereaved families from both sides - they heard from a Palestinian brother and sister whose brother had been killed by an Israeli settler. They also heard in Jerusalem from the mother of an Israeli soldier killed by a Palestinian gunman.
The Palestinian brother and sister had to make a super-human effort because their journey required special permission, and was made difficult by flying checkpoints and other restrictions, but the sister articulated her desire to meet the Irish leaders because she has "no one to tell my story to".
She went on to talk about the fears she has about her own children, and how they are becoming radicalised by the intolerable restrictions on their lives. Being listened to respectfully by the Irish leaders was a moving and empowering experience for her.
Much has been made of the so-called Western Wall "controversy" when the four leaders, accompanied by the Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem, were refused access by a non-religious security guard because three of them were wearing pectoral crosses. In fact a protocol of understanding exists to permit bishops to wear such items.
Sadly, the media failed to report a much more profound event the next day when an ordinary passer-by, a Jewish lady who had witnessed the five-minute incident, took the trouble to attend the Kehilat Kol HaNeshama synagogue in west Jerusalem, which the Irish leaders were attending, to express regret for what happened at the Western Wall, and to personally welcome the four leaders.
Peace-making requires risk-taking and the four leaders took many to reach out and connect with people who showed courage and resilience themselves and demonstrated how religious identity can be a driving force for good.
Through collective effort the four leaders have challenged their churches to identify with the suffering of people in the Israel/Palestine conflict, and to positively connect with them through sustained education, prayer and action. Humble encounter, dignified dialogue and relationship-building, in spite of difference, are the seeds of hope that ultimately will bring peace.
Dr Susan Hood was convener of the ecumenical steering group appointed by the four church leaders to co-ordinate and accompany their recent visit to the Holy Land