Representatives of Canadian churches and church-based groups met on Feb. 4 with Arab and Muslim leaders who are similarly committed to “peace with justice” in Israel and Palestine.
Both sides have been careful to note that the meeting signalled nothing more than a commitment to meet face to face more regularly in order to consult and share information about issues affecting peace in the Middle East.
Hosted by the Canadian Friends of Sabeel, the meeting in Toronto gathered an ecumenical forum on the Middle East which includes representatives from the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church and church-based groups such as KAIROS. They were joined by six delegates from the AMCC (Arab/Muslim Coordinating Committee).
“The meeting signals a new beginning of intentional conversation” and consultation around issues involving the Middle East, said Andrea Mann, the Anglican Church of Canada’s global relations co-ordinator.
“It wasn’t like we were going to have a written agreement. What we were coming for was to state our viewpoint on the issue of Jerusalem,” said Jasmine Noureddin, Canadian Arab Federation executive director, in a separate interview.
AMCC delegates expressed their desire to see a peaceful solution to the intractable conflict that has been affecting people in Jerusalem and Palestine. “Our goal is for everyone in that area to live with dignity. We believe that this is a case of not only humanitarian right but justice,” said Noureddin. “We believe that the churches have always supported just causes and the dignity of human beings. We believe that Jerusalem is a great place to really showcase their beliefs and we’re there 100 per cent to support them.”
AMCC lauded the United Church of Canada (UCC) General Council’s decision in 2012 to boycott products from Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, calling it “a non-violent form of resistance to what we believe is an illegal occupation” of Palestine, said Noureddin. It has “given us a ray of hope that something we’ve been behind for a long time is finally starting to catch momentum,” she added. “We’re hoping the other churches can even just talk about it, you know.”
Noureddin said AMCC delegates were aware that other churches have varying stances on the matter-while some have explored the idea of divestment from companies doing business with Israel as a way of pressuring the Israeli government to withdraw its armed forces from occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza, others have not even talked about taking any action.
Nonetheless, AMCC has extended a hand of partnership to churches.
“We want to affirm not only our gratitude but our commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation. You have our word here…we want to be partners,” said Dr. Atif Kubursi, former president of the National Council on Canada- Arab Relations and emeritus professor of economics at McMaster University. He thanked the forum for also hosting a dinner after the meeting, saying, “In our tradition, when you break bread you become family…”
Noureddin added, “We’re hoping that this will grow into a solid relationship.”
The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada echoed this hope, saying “something has been born here…a wider partnership.” Churches recognize “the need for many voices to be around this table as we discuss and pray together for a just and lasting peace in the land of the Holy One,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, in remarks delivered at the dinner.
The meeting had been a long time coming, said Mann. While churches have been engaged in meetings and formal dialogue with Canadian Jewish organizations, “there hasn’t been a similar, parallel conversation” with the Canadian Arab and Muslim community, she said.
A few meetings were held in the late 1990s, but “there was never a sustained effort” in seeking out Canadian Arabs of Palestinian origin, whether Muslim or Christian, who could help develop a Christian policy on the Middle East issue.
“They have asked to be included and we have responded rather poorly to that request in the past,” said Mann.
Noureddin acknowledged that churches “to a certain degree never extended that full hand out to come and join us,” and that whenever interactions took place, they were either “very general or for theological kind of discussions.”
The Muslim Arab community in Canada has also struggled to come together. “The community is so massive and so diverse. Everyone’s Muslim, but they come from so many countries, so many cultures, so many traditions,” she said.
The population is also fairly new; many arrived in Canada in the last 10 to 15 years. There are about 348,000 Arabs in Canada, representing 1.2% of the total population, according to the 2007 Statistics Canada census. Of these, 44% reported they were Muslim and 44% were Christian.
Beyond the issue of Israel and Palestine, Mann said she believes continuing conversations could also address Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiments or even just provide basic understanding of who Arabs are in Canada.
Mann said she was moved by a reflection on growing up Arab in Canada that was shared in the meeting by Robert Massoud, founder of Toronto-based Beit Zatoun cultural centre. Zatoun also brings Palestinian fair trade olive oil to North America “as a symbol of light, hope and peace.” Massoud knew that “as simple as breathing, it was okay [for him] to be involved in advocacy work” in Canada, but it “really scared his parents who thought there was a chance they could be deported back to Palestine because their son was speaking out,” said Mann. “That explains a whole lot why we don’t hear from the Canadian Arab or Muslim diaspora who are first- or second-generation Canadian,” she added.