Abrahamic Teams in the MENA

Interfaith dialogue – a painstaking process

The declared goal of the Abrahamic Teams is to improve how Jews, Christians and Muslims interact with and live alongside each other. The project, which originates in Germany, is now being implemented in Israel, Egypt and Morocco too. But, as Claudia Mende found out, interfaith dialogue does not progress quickly

The main problem with interfaith dialogue is that it is often a case of theologians and academics talking among themselves. The Abrahamic Teams, on the other hand, have a very different approach. Abrahamic Team groups – each one being made up of a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew – go straight to the people, talking to them in schools or at open events.

The idea behind the Abrahamic Teams hails from Germany, where a former Protestant minister, Jurgen Micksch, set up the initiative in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Abrahamic Team members highlight the things that their faiths have in common, point to the areas where they differ, dispel prejudices and answer questions. This form of interfaith dialogue centres on the Biblical Abraham, a major figure for the faithful of all three monotheistic religions.

Following the success of the initiative in Germany, the people behind it decided to try and extend it to the Mediterranean, specifically to the MENA countries Israel, Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon. The work is supported by the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung, Brot fur die Welt and the Allianz Kulturstiftung.

The intention was that dialogue would help further understanding in a region where religious conflicts are intensifying existing tensions. The relationship between the different religions and religious denominations in these countries differs considerably. One thing they all have in common, however, is that these interfaith meetings at grassroots level are ground-breaking.

Protestant theologian Dr. Jurgen Micksch (source: Abrahamic Forum e.V.)
Protestant theologian Jurgen Micksch was chairman of the Intercultural Council in Germany from 1994 to 2017 and is the initiator of the International Weeks Against Racism and the Abrahamic Forum

Israel: no everyday interaction

Generally speaking, Jews, Christians and Muslims don't mix in Israel. Even in mixed residential areas – such as those in Jerusalem or Jaffa – the members of the three religious communities keep themselves to themselves.

Because of the conflict that has raged for decades between Israel and the Palestinians, there is hardly any contact at all between young people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Even religious education at state schools is divided up according to religious denomination.

This means that when Jewish Israelis go to what is known as ʹpre-army academyʹ in preparation for their military service, most of them have never met a Muslim or a Christian. Rabbi

Nava Hefetz from the initiative Rabbis for Human Rights succeeded in persuading the State of Israel to include a four-day programme of interaction as standard in the pre-army academy programme.

As part of this programme, a Muslim contributor speaks about Islam and a priest talks about Christianity. Together, the group visits a mosque and a church. According to Hefetz, these experiences make a deep impression on the participants.

The Abrahamic Forum conducts between 10 and 12 events in Israel every year, each of which involves groups of between 50 and 200 people. But the military academy programme does not account for all interfaith meetings organised by the initiative in Israel: in 2018, a group of Christian Palestinian theology students from Bethlehem met rabbis-in-training from the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Both groups promised to meet again this year.

Similar meetings are planned for Ramallah and Hebron in 2019. "I now understand that there are people in every religion who work to improve understanding and who want to live together in peace," said one participant after a meeting.

According to Hefetz, this is exactly the kind of learning effect that the initiative wants to achieve. "We want to show that we have shared values." All three religions forbid the killing of fellow humans and consider respect for others a fundamental value. Despite this, she says, religion is used again and again as a justification for violence.

"This is why," adds Hefetz, "all of us, together, have to consciously decide in favour of a humanist interpretation of the religious texts." Then, she adds, it will be possible to find compromises for religiously charged conflicts such as the Western Wall (or "Wailing Wall") in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Nava Hefetz from the Rabbis for Human Rights initiative (source: YouTube)
"The media don't report about attempts at dialogue," says Hefetz from the Rabbis for Human Rights initiative. "They are only interested in suicide bombings and terrorist attacks"

In Israeli society, such encounters that go against the grain are often frowned upon. Moreover, the media is not interested in them. "The media don't report about attempts at dialogue," says Hefetz. "They are only interested in suicide bombings and terrorist attacks."

Egypt: very little interest among Orthodox Copts

There are only a handful of Jews living in Egypt today, all of whom are over 60 years of age. Finding out anything about Judaism is therefore difficult. Although the Jewish community is officially part of the Abrahamic Forum, which was founded in Cairo in 2016, the Abrahamic Teams have in effect to get along without its involvement.

Tharwat Kades was born in Egypt, but has been living in Germany for decades. He spent many years working as a minister of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau in Germany. Now retired, he is devoting himself to a subject very close to his heart, namely interfaith dialogue in the country of his birth. Together with Jurgen Micksch, he came up with the idea of building up interfaith dialogue work with the Abrahamic Teams in Egypt.

To this end, Kades approached the Coptic Evangelical, Coptic Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches as well as Al-Azhar University and the Baha'i community.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian Church in Egypt. About 10 percent of the 90 million people living in Egypt belong to it. Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical denominations are small minorities within this Christian minority. According to Kades, while Al-Azhar and the two smaller Coptic Churches indicated a willingness to engage in dialogue, the Coptic Orthodox Church was only moderately interested. For this reason, only individual representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church have taken part in the activities so far. He hopes that in time, interest will grow.

The situation for Baha'is in Egypt is precarious because they are not a recognised religious community there. Initially, there were major reservations about Baha'is within the Abrahamic Teams, says Kades. This only changed after a number of meetings. Now, a professor from the Dental Faculty at Cairo University represents Baha'is in the Abrahamic Teams.

Dr. Tharwat Kades (photo: Hesse Forum for Religion and Society)
Dr. Tharwat Kades was born in Mallawi / Egypt and studied Protestant theology in Cairo. Dr. Kades has belonged to the Evangelical Church of Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) since 1973 and was interreligious commissioner in the Dean's Office of Dreieich for more than 25 years

As in Israel, meeting people from other faiths is not par for the course in Egypt. In the past, the various religious denominations have lived more or less peacefully alongside each other. Problems arise in rural central and southern Egypt in particular, where denominational and social conflicts quickly merge and sometimes escalate. In such cases, attacks on Christians often follow. "We have to go into the villages," says Kades. "That is where the problems are, not in Cairo."

So far, 60 church schools – in Cairo, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut and elsewhere – and, since 2019, three state schools in Ismailiya and a city in the Nile Delta have been won over for the initiative. For church schools, it is a completely new departure for a Muslim to come and talk about Islam. To Kades' disappointment, the state schools' reaction to the offer was very reserved. However, he hopes that in time, the Abrahamic Teams will reach more of them.

Addressing prejudices openly

The Abrahamic Teams start by talking to the religion and social studies teachers about the project. Then they discuss it with representatives of the parents. It is only when parents, the school management and teachers are on board that the teams talk to the pupils. But, says Kades, the teams have not reached that point yet. Overcoming fear and reservations is a painstaking process that takes patience.

Lots of prejudices are voiced during these meetings. Christians often claim that Muslims are false and devious, while Muslims often hold fast to the stubborn notion that Christians believe in three Gods. The only way to dispel such prejudices is to talk openly about them.

In Morocco, the interfaith atmosphere is more open than it is in Egypt. There is a Jewish community in the country, which has been invited to get involved in the Abrahamic Teams project. Initial contact has also been made with representatives of Islam. In January 2019, a first event with high-ranking representatives of Christianity, Judaism and Islam took place at the University of Rabat. The media interest was high. The project coincides with a renewed interest in Judaism in Morocco.

There are plans for an "Abrahamic Caravan", which would see young Jews, Christians and Muslims organising events in a number of different places this year. Contacts have already been made with communities in Tunisia. However, interfaith dialogue is not possible all over the Arab world. It is not only war-torn countries like Syria that are not involved. In Lebanon too, the denominational divisions are so deep that despite their best efforts, initiators were not able to organise a single interfaith meeting.

Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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