Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Any comments on intolerance between religions?

Israeli Ambassador on Ending Prejudice
Interview With Oded Ben-Hur

ROME, NOV. 21, 2006 ( Israel's ambassador to the Holy See sees a need for a worldwide education campaign to topple the walls of prejudice -- and he thinks the Pope could play a key role.

Oded Ben-Hur has been ambassador to the Vatican since June 2003. Born in Israel in 1951, he began his diplomatic career in 1977. He was a minister-plenipotentiary on the Israeli Policy Planning Bureau (2000-2003) and ambassador to the Baltic states (1996-1999).

In this interview with ZENIT, the ambassador explains his proposal and asks the Holy See to launch an appeal so that "Christians will return to live in the Middle East, in particular in the Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories," as "they are an essential factor for peace."

Q: Mr. Ambassador, the situation in the Holy Land and the border areas has had a new and dramatic evolution. What is it like?

Ben-Hur: It is a very complex subject, which cannot be exhausted with a few words. We are witnessing a conflict that is taking place within the Palestinian people, and the same is happening in Lebanon. It is to be desired that from these conflicts a new way out will be born, geared to negotiations, and not threats by extremists.

It must be remembered that in the decades following the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Arab-Israeli conflict was characterized by Arabs' hatred for Israel, which, from their point of view, was created to cleanse Europe's conscience after the Shoah [Holocaust].

In the mid-1990s, however, we witnessed a substantial change, with the growth of Islamic fundamentalism which, in the name of Allah, has introduced the "culture of death" in our region.

Both Hamas as well as Hezbollah impede every attempt at dialogue, denying the very existence of the state of Israel, and they are local manifestations of global danger called extremist Islam.

While many in the world believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the "mother of all conflicts" and, therefore, once resolved, the world will be half-way to peace, the truth is very different.

Suffice is to see that 85% of the latest terrorist attacks in the world have been perpetrated by Muslim extremists against moderate Muslim countries and citizens -- Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia, etc. -- precisely for the purpose of discouraging them from dialogue with the West.

Iran represents the most worrying proof of this growing danger, as it continues to export the idea of the Islamic revolution of a Shiite nature, threatening Israel's existence, denying the Shoah, expressing the will that the whole world live under Muslim dominion. I consider it a reason for great preoccupation for the Christian world.

In fact, thanks to Hezbollah and Syria's "good offices," Iran caused the last war in Lebanon.

Q: Do you see a possible way out of this situation?

Ben-Hur: I believe that at the base of these frictions and of all hostilities there is an abyss of ignorance between religions and cultures, because of centuries of prejudices, hatred and wars.

The only way to break this vicious circle, from my point of view, is to revive an endless campaign of education and formation to help people worldwide build bridges of understanding and knowledge to pull down the walls of prejudices and opposition between religions, which have given origin to the "demonizing" of one another.

Q: But who can launch this campaign?

Ben-Hur: This campaign should have universal extent and be based on three principal means: financial sources, school programs and, what is most important, appropriate teachers.

Of course, it is up to governments and politicians to undertake this initiative. However, given the nature of their responsibility, few times can they commit themselves beyond four or five years of their terms. Therefore, the promoters and axis of this "educational marathon" must be the leaders of the different religions of the world: They do not have to be re-elected; they have a wide vision and great motivation.

In line with this logic, it is indispensable that the one who promotes this initiative is a religious leader of the highest level. In Islam, there is no one leader; the small Jewish world, for obvious reasons, can allow itself to be guided but cannot open the way.

Therefore, the most appropriate leader to address this very important challenge is the Pope, especially in the light of the recent frictions within interreligious dialogue.

Q: What is the future of Christians in the Middle East?

Ben-Hur: I believe it is totally necessary that the Holy See launch an appeal so that Christians will return to live in the Middle East, in particular in Lebanon and in the Palestinian Territories. The Christian communities have always been an essential factor for peace. It is necessary that they return to be an integral part of the social fabric of these areas.

Aspirations to interreligious and intercultural dialogue can only be successful if Christians can return to coexist in an agreed manner with their Muslim Arab brothers. In this way, for example, Bethlehem would again be a city of peace and coexistence as it was in past decades.

Q: What role do pilgrims have in the political and social development of the area?

Ben-Hur: The Holy See should also launch an appeal to the Christian world and motivate its own bishops to encourage pilgrimages to the Holy Land and neighboring countries.

If only one of every thousand Catholics of the world, that is, some 1.2 billion people visited the Holy Land every year, a movement would be generated that might influence positively the Arab-Israeli conflict, profoundly altering the psychological situation, attracting investments, favoring an economic rebirth of tourist industries in support of the Palestinian people, of the Christian communities of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, etc.

Undoubtedly, pilgrims assume the role of "messengers of peace."

Q: How are relations between Israel and the Holy See developing?

Ben-Hur: We are entering our 13th year of official relations, which in Hebrew would be called "Bar Mitzvah year," a traditional rite that symbolizes the passage from childhood to adulthood, namely, to take on responsibilities and become mature. I hope this will happen.

The age-old history of Jews and Christians makes relations between Israel and the Holy See complex and difficult and, given that the rules of an interview allow for rather limited space, I will mention only two important points to explain the present state of relations.

The first is the financial and economic agreement which should establish the rights and duties of Catholic communities in Israel regarding issues of taxes, properties, holy places, access to the country's judicial system, etc. Planned for the end of November is the visit of a high-level Israeli delegation to the Vatican to discuss proposals oriented to overcoming the obstacles that endure and conclude the agreement.

The second point is the need to promote a quality leap in our relations undertaking a true political dialogue with this objective; a shared agenda must be planned of topics and common interests which is supported by reciprocal visits between the highest authorities of the two states.

Finally, though not least, I would like to recall our hope that the Pope will want to visit Israel in the course of next year.

Q: Do you see signs of optimism?

Ben-Hur: I am optimistic for two reasons.

The first, because I was born in a family of optimistic parents who, despite all the difficulties, together with their surviving companions of the Shoah, succeeded in building a democratic, strong and modern country, which is also in the fourth phase of development in the application of biotechnologies and nanotechnologies.

The second reason is the simple fact that, in Israel, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of being pessimistic: We cannot lock ourselves in and throw the key into the Mediterranean.

We have to stretch our hand out to any willingness of the Arabs for dialogue with us and try to promote every initiative for peace in which we believe profoundly.

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