From the Fall 2007 Fuller Focus
Building Bridges in the Middle East
Through his reconciliation ministry, Salim Munayer brings Palestinians and Israelis together—starting with personal relationships.
It was the last night of the youth conference. One young participant, a Messianic Israeli, shared that he would begin his mandatory service with the Israeli army upon his return home. The other youth gathered to pray for him: for protection, for peace of mind, for wisdom.
Some of those lifting their voices in intercession were fellow Israelis. The others were Palestinians.
Scenes like this are not unusual in the work of Musalaha, a reconciliation ministry founded by Salim Munayer (MA ’84) in 1990. Taking its name from the Arabic word for “forgiveness” or “reconciliation,” Musalaha, based in Jerusalem, seeks to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians: first among Palestinian and Jewish believers, and then beyond to their respective communities. “Although believers in the Messiah share a common faith, there are great cultural, historical, and language differences,” says Munayer. “Both sides are emotionally charged by their pain and enmity.”
Munayer, a Palestinian himself, grew up in a mixed Israeli-Palestinian community, speaking both languages, learning both cultures, and attending schools of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. “I even came to faith in a mixed Bible study of Israelis and Palestinians,” he says. “That experience convinced me that Jesus is not only my personal Savior, but the Savior of all peoples here—the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Sensing God’s call to ministry, Munayer came to Fuller for his master’s degree in missiology. He wanted to apply his Fuller learning “to both sides” upon his return to the Middle East, and plunged into teaching both Israelis and Palestinians: at the predominantly Jewish Immanuel House Study Center in Tel Aviv, and at the predominantly Arab Bethlehem Bible College, where he continues serving today as academic dean.
Then came the Palestinian uprisings of the late 1980s, when Munayer saw the need for an organization dedicated actively to reconciliation—and Musalaha was born, an explicitly Christian vehicle for bringing people into a process of biblical reconciliation.
How does Musalaha even begin to tackle a challenge with roots so deep and tendrils so gripping? Through personal relationships, says Munayer. With a board that itself represents a spectrum of opinions, “we knew that we would have to deal with our political and theological differences eventually. But we first had to create a safe forum where people could develop relationships, and then express, exchange, learn, and debate the issues that divide us.”
Obstacles to building those relationships are formidable, and Munayer can tick them off: the tendencies of each group to dehumanize the other, not recognize plurality within the other side, perceive oneself as the victim, and many other traps. “What can be done to restore in our perceptions the truth that the enemy also is created in God’s image?” asks Munayer. “Relationships must be built.”
Musalaha pursues several strategies to foster those relationships, foremost among them the desert encounter—with Palestinians and Israelis traveling together through rugged terrain. “The desert is a uniquely neutral atmosphere, where everyone is in the same position, working together to negotiate the hardships of the desert sun or a stubborn camel,” Munayer explains. “The challenges of survival and cooperation provide an excellent occasion for open communication. The participants share devotions, life stories, fears, struggles, and hopes; and in doing so they reach a certain level of intimacy.”
Evan Thomas, also on the Musalaha team, describes one five-day trek through the Sinai Mountains: “The physical demands were great, and strained muscles and bruises took their toll. Nevertheless, as social and cultural barriers crumbled and the level of true fellowship intensified, the Lord began to do his healing work in our bodies and souls.”
Musalaha’s work doesn’t end with those desert treks. They know follow-up is crucial as participants return to their communities and, sometimes, undergo negative pressure. To continue and expand the process begun in the desert, participants engage in social service projects together through which they serve both Palestinian and Israeli communities. “In many cases, the follow-up projects provide a means to take relationships to a deeper level and deal with difficult issues,” Munayer asserts.
Other components of the Musalaha ministry are critical, too: camps and conferences for different ages, gatherings for women, sports for youth, and theological seminars. Camps for children and youth are held regularly—and as the Palestinian and Israeli campers engage in worship, games, sports, meals, and other activities together, friendships inevitably grow. “We learned to put our differences aside and see that although we are so different, we are more alike. It’s really awesome and powerful and simply fun,” reported one young participant. Another learned a lesson profound in its simplicity: “The other side is not an evil side.”
In one earthy example of the camps’ unifying power, a teen camper described the teamwork required to build their girls’ toilet area in the woods: finding the spot, doing the digging, and creatively fashioning a “comfortable seat.” She later recounted this particular story “to show that as human beings, sometimes we find out what it means to be ‘human together’ when we are taking part in the most mundane activities,” she said. “As much as we like to stress our differences, we have similar needs, similar desires, similar pains, and joys. We are made in God’s image, and in him, we share a human identity.”
In the process of reconciliation, there are several stages Munayer and his colleagues have observed. People are often initially hesitant but then, in their first gathering, are curious, interested, and even enthusiastic to participate in an activity together. In subsequent stages, however, as grievances and different perspectives come to the surface, there are feelings of being overwhelmed—often followed by withdrawal, and a sense that the process is hopeless.
Many at this point are unwilling to go on, Munayer states. But those who continue “enter the next stage of maturity, and realize that they are bound to live alongside one another. At this point, people understand that both sides have genuine charges and grievances against each other. They realize that they must find a way to correct and restore the relationships between the two peoples, and are willing to take serious steps to do so.”
As participants go through this process, the issue of identity—personal and ethnic identity—plays a major role, he emphasizes. Yet he has observed that “those who move through the stages of reconciliation develop a more secure identity, becoming more sure of who they are in their ethnicity and in the Lord.”
The effects of Musalaha among believers have been “rippling outward” into their surrounding communities, Munayer reports, “and non-believers started asking if they could join our programs.” Because of this—and to help address escalating tensions in Muslim-Christian relations—Musalah is now expanding its bridge-building work to the interfaith level. They approached rising community leaders in their 30s and 40s—both Muslim and Christian, from different traditions and factions—with the goal of bringing these “change agents” together. The result was a recent interfaith desert encounter in Wadi Rum, Jordan, of 25 Muslim and Christian community leaders, youth leaders, and pastors where, Munayer says, “walls of prejudice were broken down, honest discussion was initiated, and relationships began to form.”
In one activity, participants stood in a circle, passing a long piece of string around and across, memorizing the name of the person to whom they passed the string. Eventually the string was intricately tangled and connected, forming a web. “This illustrated how we are inevitably connected as a community and a people,” Munayer explains. “Together we asked: ‘How are we dependent and why do we need each other?’” The participants recognized the need to dig deeper into their connectedness—and since their return from the desert, many have been in frequent contact.
Working among believers will always be the top priority of Musalaha, stresses Munayer, and that work has impacted many: From about 60 participants at the first reconciliation conference in 1991, Musalaha saw over 1,000 in its programs last year. But the road of reconciliation will never be easy. “The process has had both success and painful setbacks,” Munayer says. “Many times we see how close we are, and at the same time, how far away.”
Yet there will always be hope: through the unity of believers in Christ. A picture of that unity can be seen whenever the participants of a Musalaha camp or conference gather around the Lord’s Table. Those from both sides of the Middle East conflict serve one another, as described by one parent: “It brought tears to my eyes to see Palestinian and Israeli youth, giving each other the bread and wine, which signifies the broken body and poured-out blood of our Lord. One couldn’t help but think of all the broken bodies and spilled blood as a result of the conflict. We breathed a prayer of hope, daring to dream that these youth will be instrumental in bringing our land into peace, and bringing many others to the true and lasting peace we can only find in Jesus.”
Learn more at the Musalaha website.