Conference report 5: Witnessing to Hope, 13-20th August 2000, Caux, Switzerland

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Religion - source of conflict or compassion

"Healing History and Reconciling Adversaries: A Multi-Faith Conversation" was the theme of a panel discussion between Rabbi Dr Marc Gopin, Adjunct Professor of Diplomacy at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy, Boston, USA, Professor Mustafa Abu Sway, Professor of Islamic Thought, Al-Quds University, Jerusalem and Dr Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, Professor of Theology, Bremen, Germany.

Journalist and author Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, India, a grandson of the Mahatma, introduced the panellists as "scholar-activists who belong to the faiths of the family of Abraham; faiths originating in the spiritually charged air, soil and waters of the Middle East." The following are extracts of what they said:

Rabbi Marc Gopin:
" In Jewish tradition forgiveness is part of repentance, recognition of one's guilt, the detailed mentioning of what one has done, the asking for forgiveness, restitution, addressing injustice."
" I have tried to do certain things towards reconciling the Jewish and the Palestinian people. The most senior person amongst the Palestinians present here is Mr Tawfiq Abu Ghazaleh. I want to say to you that I am sorry that it has taken me so long to say what had to be said, write what had to be written, to do what had to be done. I hope it is not too late. I swear to you that I will leave no stone unturned to find the path towards the apologies that need to be expressed between our peoples. I have a vision before my mind, that before long our peoples will have the wisdom to find the way to apologise to each other, to live in two homes side by side in dignity and even in companionship."

Professor Mustafa Abu Sway:
" The notion of forgiveness is mentioned more than 140 times in the Qur'an. In the overwhelming majority of these, forgiveness is mentioned in relationship to God; it is He who forgives and it is He who deprives people of forgiveness if they choose to reject His messages to them. God will forgive the human being not once, but as many times as he or she repents and seeks forgiveness. Repentance is a pre-requisite for forgiveness. Conditions for forgiveness to be valid include: to stop doing the sins one is committing and, if these sins include material damage, then restitution is a must.
Prof. Abu Sway recounted some of the many injustices which Palestinians suffer today, such as land confiscation, house demolition, restrictions in freedom of movement and minimal access to water resources. "When I thought about 'healing the past', I wish it were past for me, for us. However, it is not past. It is something that still continues practically every day."

Dr Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz:
Dr Müller-Fahrenholz told a story of a group of elderly German war veterans, who were visiting Belarus to build a home for children who were suffering from the nuclear fallout after the Chernobyl-disaster. They had all been there 50 years before with Hitler's army. During a dinner with their Belarus hosts one of them stood up and said how deeply sorry he was for what he himself and the German people had done. He broke down in tears. An old Belarus woman got to her feet and hugged and kissed the old man. Professor Müller-Fahrenholz drew some lessons from this story:
. "Guilt must be named. This one man struggles to find the right words. It is a disarming confession, a giving up of the attempt to deny the evil deeds of the past. It does not require the entire community, group or nation, to speak up, but it does need a few to face the horrors.
. The Belarus woman comes and kisses him. Remember that the German army did atrocious things to the people of Belarus. Yet when she sees the man struggling, breaking down and weeping, he is no longer the enemy, he becomes a fellow human being in need of forgiveness.
. There is the lasting impact of guilt on the perpetrator's side and there is the lasting impact of hurt on the victim's side. The German man and the Belarus woman liberate each other from these bondages of guilt and hurt. . The emphasis cannot be on repairing the past, it needs to be on preparing a more just and equitable future. It involves questions of burden sharing and compensation.
. The grinding mills of retaliation consume new generations. How can young people respond to the challenges of their time if they continue to react and are made to react to their parents' and grandparents' wounds? Forgiveness has to do with setting the coming generations free. Forgiveness is a gift of grace entrusted by God to all human beings irrespective of race, gender, class, creed or religion."

Quotes from his book: Art of Forgiveness, 1997, WCC Publications:
" God will forgive the human being not once, but as many times as he or she repents and seeks forgiveness. Repentance is a pre-requisite for forgiveness."

"Auschwitz prohibits the reduction of guilt and shame to the individual level. Human beings act and fail to act also as members of families, associations, ethnic groups and nations. Forgiveness can never replace justice. At the same time, it must be emphasized that forgiveness goes beyond justice."

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