The Traditional Way of Making Peace in the Middle East


Sulha is the traditional Middle Eastern resolution process. The root of the name comes from ‘Sulh’ – which means peacemaking in Arabic and sounds very similar to ‘Sliha’ – the Hebrew word for forgiveness. The Sulha process predates Islam by about 400 years and is practiced in various ways today across the Middle East; in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula and in many other Muslim countries.

Sulha is unique in that it provides an accepted and practiced platform for transitioning from revenge to forgiveness. This practice recognizes and utilizes local cultural elements and is a relevant form of peacemaking and conflict management at the family, clan, tribal and village level. Sulha may also have relevance to broader conflict resolution/management efforts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the conflict in Iraq and other disputes in the Middle East.

When the second Intifada erupted in the year 2000 in Israel and Palestine, Gabriel Meyer Halevy couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. The son of socially-aware parents and leaders in their own community, he was moved to act. His father Rabbi T. Marshal Meyer was a community builder and an human rights activist in Argentina during the Dirty War in the 1970s, and Gabriel grew up absorbing the importance of shared responsibility for humanity demonstrated by his parents.

Involvement in cross-cultural projects and a deep interfaith understanding inspired Gabriel’s journey as a world traveller, poet, musician and peacemaker. In the late 1990s he participated in an interfaith Palestinian/Israeli tour in the USA, culminating in the UN Millennium Spiritual Summit, The Peace Vigil in the old city of Jerusalem and at the interfaith International Peacemaker Community encounter in Tantur Monastery (Jerusalem, 2000) where the first seed vision of On the Way to Sulha was born.

Violence was erupting all over the Middle East and because Gabriel lived in the Galilee region, it was only natural that the journey would start close to home. He reached out to peacemaking elder Elias Jabbour, founder of The House of Hope in Shefar’am and author of the book Sulha – Towards a Palestinian Way of Peacemaking. Elias is the son of Jabbour Jabbour, well respected Sulha mediator, Galilean elder and mayor of Shefaram for many years.

Gabriel visited Elias at his home in Shefar’am; they connected right away, sharing stories, prayers and songs. This meeting gave birth to the first Sulha Day gathering in 2001. Gabriel recalls, “We celebrated Chanukkah, Christmas, and Ramadan… it was a deep and heartfelt encounter. We Jews cooked the ‘iftar’ breakfast meal of Ramadan and Christian and Muslim Arabs lit our ‘Chanukkah’ candles after a moving listening circle that lasted the whole day.”

On the Way to Sulha continued to grow from the ground up and inspired many others to form further peacemaking initiatives, fueled by faith and a passion for overcoming the challenges and bridging the abyss of animosity. It provided a meeting place for many thousands of people from all walks of life. Religious and community leaders, artists and activists could all meet, share and learn from one another in an environment where people of different beliefs, cultures and traditions listen to each other, address destructive stereotypes and defenses and establish constructive dialogues.

On the Way to Sulha is an example of how real people can make a difference and be agents of change. In Gabriel’s words, “surprise reality until it changes”. Ideas and visions do manifest through people’s work and their devotion and passion.

I was part of many of the On the Way to Sulha gatherings and toured with Gabriel for several years, sharing and spreading the message of On the Way to Sulha through our Amen concerts and workshops. I believe we can all take part in changing reality and the world we live in when we let go of fear and follow our calling. I remember Gabriel telling me that his vision included speaking with the Dalai Lama. It seemed only natural, years later, when On the Way to Sulha received a private audience with His Holiness.

Inspiration never stops and since 2007 Gabriel has continued on his unique path and working with Iranians-Israelis and internationals in the mountains of Turkey, up until 2011. He is a living bridge between Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Sudanese in Sinai, especially since the Arab spring. Through his music he expresses the renewal of the pluralistic Hebrew spirituality in Israel, and has been facilitating teaching presentations for over 20 years. In the last year Gabriel’s Peace work has mainly been through The Human Project in South Africa, U.S.A, South America and Israel, as a musician and cross – cultural bridge builder, and in the vision camp “We refuse to be Enemies” birthing new initiatives, in the midst of the bombs and Gaza war. Here is one man that inspires a change for many, not letting the fear of the other to rule the world.

This excerpt from the writings of Elias Jabour articulates the peacemakers’ challenge and how to overcome it:

“It is by way of truth that we have any hope of life free from the fears born of our inhumanity to each other. The way by which I hold my enemy down, keeps me down as well. Peace cannot, however, be made apart from the human willingness to let it happen – a willingness, I might add, that will not take place until we learn to forgive the hurt we have suffered or been a part of and accept losses however horrendous. That can never happen apart from a change of heart prompted by our awareness that where there is no justice, peace is far from our grasp. And where there is no forgiveness, justice too is beyond reach. The lesson of our day is undeniably costly. The question of our day is why should we keep paying and never learn?”

Be a peacemaker and join the growing community of peacemakers in the Middle East and all over the world.

The Traditional Way of Making Peace in the Middle East

Christians Talking to Muslims

Is Dialogue with Islam Possible?
By Thomas Reese
March 13, 2015 for the National Catholic Reporter

“It is dialogue and cooperation on the local level that makes a difference.”

Granted the Islamic State group and the multiple conflicts occurring in the Middle East, is dialogue with Islam possible? This was the question asked by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, nuncio emeritus to Egypt and former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
As a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa and an Arabic and Islamic scholar, Fitzgerald is especially qualified to discuss this topic, as he did in a March 6 lecture at The Catholic University of America sponsored by the Institute of Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the Africa Faith and Justice Network.

Despite having spent most of his life in dialogue with Islam, Fitzgerald is not blind to the difficulties of dialogue. He began by examining three elements that make dialogue difficult with certain categories of Muslims.

First, “there is a great difference in the experience of Jesus and Muhammad, and thus in the foundational experience of these two religions,” he said. Both were prophets with a message of conversion to the world. Both gathered around them disciples.

“Yet Jesus preached the kingdom of God, a kingdom which was not of this world,” Fitzgerald explained. “His was an essentially religious message which, although it was designed to have an effect on people’s behavior in this world, could be lived out within any political setting.”

“[Muhammad’s] message too was essentially religious, the acknowledgement of the one God as against the prevalent polytheism, but it had a social dimension to it, which was to bring about the formation of a new community bound not by blood ties or tribal loyalty, but by religion: the Umma.” The Umma was both a religious and a political community, and it took up arms to survive. Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman.

Pre-Constantine Christianity, on the other hand, was a purely religious movement that did not take up arms to survive.

“So although Christianity was, as it were, taken over and used by political entities, in the first place by the Byzantines and then afterward by various monarchs and rulers, in essence, it remains independent of any political power,” Fitzgerald said. “Whereas Islam, from its very beginning as a separate community, has been both religious and political, and one would be tempted to say that striving to defend the community, if necessary by force of arms, is a natural component of the religion.”

There is a tendency among Muslims to look back to its first period, that of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as the time of glory and true Islam. This has inspired numerous revivalist movements throughout history. Jihads against Muslims who did not practice a pure version of Islam became common. Most of these movements were local and short-lived, but the Wahhabi movement, which started in the 18th century, is still with us and finds sponsorship in Saudi Arabia.

The attraction of the caliphate is the second issue examined by Fitzgerald. He notes that Islam split into Sunni and Shiite factions after the death of Muhammad because of disagreements over succession.

The Shiite believe that Muhammad appointed Ali, his cousin, as his successor. For the Shiite, each imam designates his successor, who must belong to the family of the prophet. The Shiite believe that there were 12 imams following Muhammad and that the 12th imam went into occultation and will return at the end of time to bring about a reign of justice.

Sunnis believe Muhammad made no provision for succession and therefore succession would be determined through election by prominent members of the community.

Yet despite these divisions, the caliphate during its period of Islamic expansion and prosperity acted as a focal point of unity for Muslims. This lasted until the mid-10th century, when the caliphate began to lose its importance until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk finally abolished it in 1924.

Although an attractive ideal, the caliphate has not always been a dominant factor in the life of Islam and certainly for centuries has not functioned as a unifying political power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pronouncement that he is the caliph has been condemned by Muslim authorities. A leading scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has said that the title of caliph can “only be given by the entire Muslim nation.”

The last point Fitzgerald examines is Shariah by which the Umma is to be regulated. He notes that there are four sources for Shariah: the Quran; the Sunnah, or tradition of the prophet; qiyas, or analogy; and ijma, or consensus among scholars. The multiple sources and textual ambiguity lead to debate and disagreements over Shariah so that there are at least four different schools of interpretation.

So when it is proclaimed that Shariah law is going to be applied, the question will arise as to which Shariah. Who is going to decide which type of Shariah law is to be applied, and who is to control its application, seeing that all the conditions are fulfilled before a judgment is given?

Fitzgerald concluded: “The takfiri jihadists who have proclaimed an Islamic State where Shariah law will be observed under the guidance of a self-designated caliph are not upholding Islamic tradition, whatever they may say.” He said he believes that dialogue is impossible with such people “who are convinced they hold the truth and therefore have no need of listening to others.”

But dialogue with other Muslims is possible, he argued. He pointed to four types of dialogue that are possible and encouraged by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of action, the dialogue of discourse, and the dialogue of spiritual experience.

The dialogue of life, or what Fitzgerald calls harmonious living, takes place “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations,” in the words of the pontifical council.

Christians and Muslims have been living side by side for centuries in Africa and Asia, and now Muslims are present in increasing number in Europe and North America.

“Steps have to be taken in order to allow people to get to know one another and to create harmony,” Fitzgerald said. Increased violence has made this more difficult, but also more necessary.

Second, there is the dialogue of action where Christians and Muslims work together to face up to problems of society. Christians and Muslims have found common cause in the pro-life movement as well as in advocating human rights, social reforms, and care of the environment. Working together creates understanding and trust.

The third is the dialogue of discourse where, according to the pontifical council, “specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values.” Themes such as justice in international trade relations, business ethics, problems of migration, media and religion, respect for the environment, and questions of bioethics have all been taken up in these dialogues. Some dialogues have also discussed purely theological topics like the foundations for holiness and reason, faith and the human person.

Finally, there is the dialogue of religious experience, where, according to the pontifical council, “persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God.” Religious communities like the Benedictines and Trappists have been involved in such dialogues.

Fitzgerald concluded “that Christian-Muslim dialogue exists, and therefore it is possible.” But the situation is uneven. “There are places where there is very little or no interest at all in such dialogue, yet there are other places where relations with Muslim neighbors have become a normal concern for Christian communities.”

But at the same time that cooperation is growing, so too is mutual suspicion, which renders dialogue more difficult.

Fitzgerald puts little faith in international meetings of religious leaders and scholars. It is dialogue and cooperation on the local level that makes a difference. He said local dialogue should not be seen as a fire brigade for responding to a crisis, but as a preventive strategy that builds relationships that inoculate communities from being drawn into violence by suspicions and misunderstandings.

“It entails increasing mutual knowledge, overcoming prejudices, creating trust,” he explained. “It means strengthening bonds of friendship and collaboration to such an extent that detrimental influences coming from outside can be resisted.”

“Its aim is to build up good relations among people of different religions, helping them to live in peace and harmony,” Fitzgerald said. He noted that where Muslim and Christian leaders and communities have a history of cooperation, conflict is less likely to escalate into violence.

“It is the conflict that makes the news, not the absence of conflict,” he noted. “And yet this absence of conflict is really the good news.”

Where conflict has occurred, there will be a need for a purification of memories, which “means listening to the differing accounts of the same events, paying attention to both facts and perceptions, and trying to come to a common understanding,” he explained. “When the past is examined with honesty, it will usually be seen that all is not black and white. There can be wrongs on both sides. In any case, the acknowledgement of wrongs done, of injustices, of atrocities is an important step in any process of reconciliation.”

“Interreligious dialogue should lead to a common search for understanding, to a shared sympathy for those who are suffering and in need, to a thirst for justice for all, to forgiveness for wrong done, together with a readiness to acknowledge one’s own wrong-doings, whether individual or collective,” Fitzgerald concluded. “This would seem to be the true way forward for Christian-Muslim dialogue.”

***Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is You can follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ

Christians Talking to Muslims