While the clashes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East continue, imams and rabbis of Houston are uniting for a common goal – peace.
Together, these leaders recently issued a statement signed by 23 imams and 28 rabbis.
The statement began: “Over the past decade, we imams and rabbis in the greater Houston area have found common ground on several issues that have impacted our respective communities and the Houston community as a whole.
“Although it was a challenge, we did it again in these turbulent times,” it said.
The statement acknowledged that the interests of the two communities diverged at times, which “is very much experienced in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
Yet there are common values that bring the clergy back together.
This includes praying for the continuation of the armistice, the protection of sacred spaces and the condemnation of all actions aimed at children and civilians.
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The declaration also calls “on all people to show restraint and not allow our anger and fear to divide our communities through anti-Islamic, anti-Arab and anti-Jewish actions and statements. Anything else would not be representative of our faith and has no place in the pursuit of justice and peacebuilding. “
Finally, the clergy expressed their continuing commitment to work together and learn from one another, and maintained the belief that interfaith dialogue is vital in this time of conflict.
It concludes: “Through our interfaith dialogue and work, we have learned that our communities have many similar wants and needs, as opposed to what many would have us and others believe. Together we will pave a way through this dark time and find ways to show solidarity, peace and justice for all. “
The Minaret Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to raise the voices of American Muslims and promote positive change through multi-faith and civic engagement, has called the clergy to make this statement.
Director Shariq Ghani said the Jewish and Muslim communities in Houston have built solid relationships for years.
“And there was never a sore point,” he said.
Ghani wanted to be proactive to ensure that recent events in the Middle East did not jeopardize this dialogue. He turned to his longtime friend and collaborator, Rabbi Steve Gross of the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism.
“The Jewish and Muslim communities have worked very hard to forge a supportive and understanding relationship,” said Gross. “We stand up for one another when the other feels attacked.”
The rabbi agreed that solidarity between faiths was essential.
“If there was ever a time when we needed interfaith dialogue and engagement, it is now,” he said.
Ghani suggested they hold a chat on Zoom. He would bring four imams with him and asked Gross to gather four rabbis for the occasion on May 21st. The ceasefire was announced a few hours before the video conference.
“We met for an hour and spoke honestly and openly,” said Gross. “We have decided to come together with a joint statement on our ongoing commitment to dialogue and to engage each other in these times. We want to further strengthen our relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Houston. “
The clergy spent the next day drafting the statement. Then the Minaret Foundation invited other rabbis and imams to join the effort.
Gross explained that every cleric member who signed represents his congregation. “And that represented thousands of Jewish and Muslim people in the city,” he said.
The declaration is not intended to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather to express common concern over humanitarian issues, the rabbi said.
“It’s about the engagement of Jewish and Muslim communities here in the city of Houston – staying engaged despite the conflict,” he said. “We focused on re-enlisting each other as American Jews, as American Muslims. We can continue to learn from each other. “
Imam Waleed Basyouni of the Clear Lake Islamic Center agreed.
“Yes, there are times when we disagree, but there are so many other things that we can agree,” he said. “When something like this happens, we should talk to each other. We shouldn’t stop talking to each other.
“We all as believers should condemn the attacks on civilians, the suffering of innocent people and the taking of houses.”
Basyouni said that in recent talks, both imams and rabbis opened up about friends and family affected by the conflict. By sharing their personal stories, they created a meaningful dialogue that he hopes will continue.
“We are all Americans; we’re all Houstonians, ”said Basyouni. “We can ensure that this conflict does not get into our neighborhoods, our mosques and our synagogues. And if we talk to each other and work together, hopefully it will inspire the whole world to do the same. “
Imam Nisar ul-Haq from the ASIA Center also signed the declaration. He is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and an advocate for interfaith dialogue.
“I really see that the three Abrahamic faiths have much more in common than differences,” explained Haq. “No religion teaches its followers to fight or to hate. Religion is for the good of humanity, not against it. “
“We’re looking for a better solution to the problem on both sides,” Haq continued. “When humanity suffers, it is a concern of all faiths. We look forward to further opportunities to work and stand together. “
Ghani said the clergy’s recent action marked a milestone in their local relationship – and the first of its kind in Texas.
“This statement will encourage discussion among our clergy,” he said. “We can acknowledge our differences, share our pain, and find steps forward. Trying to find common ground starts with listening to one another. “
Rabbi Barry Gelman of the Houston United Orthodox Synagogues was one of the first leaders to be recruited by Rabbi Gross.
“I didn’t hesitate to join the group,” Gelman said. “We could try to lower the temperature at least locally and create a partnership and a common approach to the city.”
He stated that difficult issues should be addressed in difficult times.
“We have to do it when everyone is hurt and everyone is vulnerable,” he said. “I had a feeling if we wait we won’t. If we wait until it’s quiet, everyone has other things to focus on. “
Gelman hopes the ongoing conversation between rabbis and imams will serve as an example to other religious leaders in Houston.
“I would love it if our city became an example of religious peacemaking,” he added.
Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based writer.