“Meeting the Peacemakers” – Blog from a Spring Hill Prisoner

The following blog was written by one of the prisoners at Spring Hill Prison after the Abrahamic Reunion’s two programs there in May 2018. International Directors Anna Less and Ghassan Manasra, UK Directors Michael and Amanda Kenton, and Rabbi Gluck OBE led the programs. The prisoner has asked to remain anonymous.

For more information about the Abrahamic Reunion’s visits to Spring Hill Prison in May, you can read Anna Less’s blogs about the trip here. The relevant blogs are titled “Our Day at Spring Hill Prison with Rabbi Gluck and Ghassan” and “England Spring Hill Prison.”

Meeting the Peacemakers

I first heard about the Abrahamic Reunion from a Quaker chaplain in Grendon prison. After hearing about the work that they do I was intrigued to meet the people who were willing to speak out for peace and reconciliation. In a world full of conflict and fear of what is different it was a breath of fresh air knowing that people like that existed.

An event was organised for the Abrahamic Reunion to attend Grendon which was attended by around 80-90 residents. People were eager to hear what the organisation had to say. Ghassan Manasra, David Less, Anna Less alongside the main organisers Michael and Amanda Kenton presented the presentation. They spoke of the work that they had undertaken in the Middle East and how they helped communities to get to know each other by visiting each other’s places of worship and showing solidarity through common values when conflict grew between communities.

This was a real eye-opener for people because all we have been hearing, through the media, was that there was conflict around the world and no one is doing anything about it. But hearing from the Abrahamic Reunion gave me a sense of hope and conviction that all is not doom and gloom.

I met the Abrahamic Reunion again a year later when they were invited to Springhill prison to do a workshop on ‘Resolving Differences’. This was a fantastic event which continued over to the following week. My experience of the two-day event was pleasant and very moving. The passion shown by the speakers and guests was infectious and everyone joined in and participated. I particularly liked the fact that we could be so open about how we truly feel about what we want in life. As I shared my goals and aspirations with others I listened attentively to what others had to say. What I found from this experience that we as human beings are not so different.; we all want the same things. All it takes is for us to talk and truly empathise with each other.

There was an exercise led by Ghassan Manasra which I found really helpful. Ghassan came up with an idea that would help the group feel more connected with each other. He instructed the group to take turns in saying something positive and meaningful from the heart to another person in the group. Everyone took turns and when it came to me to say something I turned to a good friend of mine and said how much I respected him as a friend. I shared with him the fact that I thought that he was good father to his baby girl and husband to his wife and I admired that about him. The look on his face said it all. I don’t think he was expecting that in such an open forum, but I could see that it meant a lot to him.

Michael and Amanda Kenton had some very nice things to say about me which I found deeply moving. Sometimes in prison you can go for days without hearing a positive word from anyone, but when it does happen, especially towards oneself you sometimes don’t know what to do. Although I come from a different background from Amanda and Michael, what mattered was the connection and mutual respect we had for one another. I felt a sense of closeness with everyone in the room, and still do.

The work conducted by the Abrahamic Reunion is an important one. I have lived in a world of conflict most of my life and found that all it does is create division. In a world of conflict, we look at each other with contempt, suspicion and fear. But the ideals presented by the Abrahamic Reunion give us a sense of direction that humanity should consider. Although we are different we all share the same values and by working together we can bring about a true change in a way that guides us on positive path.

I would like to thank the organisers and guest speakers for opening my eyes and seeing the world in a different perspective. I am extremely glad that organisations like the Abrahamic Reunion are doing the work that is so needed in these times. I want to wish them many blessings and hope that they continue to bring peace to this world and help to bring communities together.

Thank you.

For Anna Less’s perspective on the visits to Spring Hill Prison in May, you can read her blogs about the trip here. The relevant blogs are titled “Our Day at Spring Hill Prison with Rabbi Gluck and Ghassan” and “England Spring Hill Prison.”


Dr. Anna Less’s Blogs From the Holy Land: August 2018

Blog 1: Sacred Text Study in Jericho

We pile into the car in Nazareth, Israel and head across the border for Jericho, to participate in a multifaith text study group organized by the Abrahamic Reunion’s Palestinian Director, Mohamad Jamous.

Abed, the Abrahamic Reunion’s Israeli Project Manager is driving; Ghassan, the Abrahamic Reunion’s International Director, is at his side. I am sitting in the back with Abed’s wife Su Su and their young baby. As we make the two-hour drive, we pass groves of Medjool date trees. Mesh bags protect massive bunches of the nearly ripe dates growing on row after row of towering, perfectly matched trees. Ghassan explains that Israel is the producer of some of the best quality dates in the world.

Rows of Israeli date trees

Grown on annexed Palestinian land in the West Bank, Israel is one of the biggest exporters of dates to the wealthy Gulf States.  On the other side of the road, opposite the Israeli groves, are the struggling Palestinian date groves. The fruit on the stunted and mismatched trees is uncovered, and many of the trees seem barren.  Ghassan winces at the contrast and explains that the Palestinians lack the resources and infrastructure to produce dates for export.  He says their dates will be sold in local markets for a fraction of the price.

Abed and I traveled this same road just two months ago when we headed to Jericho to celebrate the Abrahamic Reunion’s multi-faith Iftar event.  As we drive along today we see a number of new building sights being leveled for the construction of Israeli settlements.

Abed explains, “A lot has changed since our last trip together to Jericho. Since the new law has passed, our work has become much harder as fear, tension and frustration among the Arabs has grown. “

Abed is referring to the new “Basic Law” passed by the Israeli Knesset in July.  It is Israel’s 14th “Basic Law”, which for the first time in Israel’s 70 year history, enshrines Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

Although 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, the new legislation makes no reference to equality for all Israeli citizens like the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which pledged that the state of Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” A full translation of the new law can be read here.

Finally, we arrive at the restaurant where our meeting will be held. I recognize several of the priests and Imams who have lined up in front of the restaurant to shake hands and greet the participants as they arrive.

At the restaurant

I am not sure what to expect when we enter the private room where the Abrahamic Reunion is hosting its text study session, but I am delighted to realize that 40 people have come, and surprisingly this time Christian participants outnumber the Muslim participants. It is a big achievement for our event organizer, Abrahamic Reunion Palestinian Director, Mohamad Jamous.

Because it is easier for Christians to immigrate to the West, many have left the region and now less than 2 % of the Palestinians in the West Bank are Christians.  Mohamad Jamous had to really reach beyond his familiarity with his own Muslim community to cultivate these relationships.

One by one the presenters and religious leaders introduce themselves and begin to speak. These speakers are:

  • Father Firas Diab – The Melkite Catholic Priest from The Melkite Catholic Church of Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Father Tuameh Dawood – The Greek Orthodox Priest from The Greek Orthodox Church of Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Amad Abu Shelbay – The Imam from Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Sheikh Ghaleb Awatleh – The Mufti on the Palestinian Religious Authority
  • Jeres Awad – Artist for the Anglican Church of Palestine
  • Sheikh Imad Abu El Shalabya- the Imam of Masjid Al Zababdeh in Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Sheikh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah – The Mufti of the Palestinian National Security Forces
  • Sheikh Ghassan Manasra- Sheikh of the Qadiri Sufi Order in Israel and International Director of the Abrahamic Reunion
  • Mohamad Jamous – The Palestinian Director of the Abrahamic Reunion
  • Sheikh Abed Manasra – Project Manager for the Abrahamic Reunion in the Holy Land

They each speak with a loving depth that cuts through the current political atmosphere and causes people to re-experience and affirm their core human values of love for one another.

Shiekh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah

The eminent Sheikh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah is the Mufti of the Palestinian National Security Forces. A Mufti is a Muslim legal expert empowered to give rulings on religious matters. After welcoming everyone, he thanks me as the sole American participant for the financial support that Americans have given to enable this multi-faith event to happen.  In a world where Palestinians feel unseen and unheard, coming together and experiencing being seen by each other is particularly life affirming and eases their sense of isolation.

Ghassan translates the Mufti’s talk for me:

“It is very important to have these meetings so we can express our unity and our connection. We don’t need to say that we are Christians or we are Muslims—we need to recognize that we are all Palestinians.   It is important that we touch one another, and feel one another, and know one another and understand one another.”

He goes on to share many stories of Muslim and Christian co-existence and cooperation in Palestine.

He also tells a personal story about how a Christian boy in his neighborhood started a fight with his daughter over their religious differences. He describes how the fight escalated to include more young relatives and neighbors until more and more people in the neighborhood were becoming involved. Then he explained that the mother of the Christian boy, because she trusted the spiritual wisdom of the Mufti, and trusted him to be a fair mediator, ultimately sent her son to the Mufti to resolve the issue. The Mufti described how he brought together the neighboring Christian and Muslim youth, who had been fighting with one another, and told them:

Never say “because I am a Muslim,” or “because you are a Christian.” You must say instead, “because we are Palestinians… “ Do this and it will be the last time you will have a problem between you, because long ago we used to live together peacefully.

The topic of today’s text study is the “Holiness of Life.”

Discussing the texts

After reading the texts aloud, the Christian and Muslim clergy join tables of participants who have broken into multi-faith groups to discuss the texts more deeply. The clergy each sit at the different tables to answer questions and serve as references. People introduce themselves. A Palestinian man from Bethlehem tells me he has lived in Canada for the last 18 years, but he has moved back to Bethlehem to take care of his ailing mother.  He has become very involved with the youth at his Baptist church and explains that their congregation helps support their Muslim neighbors so they can participate in the Hajj. He says that because Palestinians have no airport, it is not easy for the Muslims to pass through all of the check points to leave the country so they can go to Saudi Arabia on Hajj. So the Christians in their congregation volunteer to drive their Muslim neighbors through the check points to Jordan and Iraq and even to Syria, so that they can board planes to Saudi Arabia.  The Christian drivers bring the youth from their churches with them so they can talk to their Muslim passengers and learn about Islam. They feel it is their duty as Christians to support their Muslim neighbors, and also to teach their own youth to be accepting of people who believe in their same God, but who worship that God in a different way.

The Muslim woman next me introduces me to her Christian companion and says they are best friends, and explains she has heard about this text study program from her Christian friend.

Father Firas Diab

It is amazing to hear both Christians and Muslims using Arabic to discuss their texts.  Arabic is a language that most Westerners associate only with Islam, so hearing Christians using phrases like “Allah Ho Akbar” and “Alhamdulillah” shatters many cultural stereotypes and causes one to experience the message of God liberated from culture, and religion, and even from language.

On the break between the text study program and the shared meal, Father Firas, the Melkite Catholic priest who often participates in Abrahamic Reunion events, tells me he travels around the world speaking to different congregations about the Palestinian people. He hopes to dispel the erroneous perception that Palestinians are violent religious fanatics, and he tries to let the world see that they are loving people who have the capacity to love all people, including their Jewish neighbors. I ask him if he speaks to Jewish congregations, and if they are open to his message. He says, “No, so far the organizers of my speaking tours in various Western countries have not thought that would work out.” But he says he is hopeful that some day he will have an opportunity to visit a synagogue and speak there.  I admired this man and his commitment to the path of love.


Think Peace

How can we bring peace to our minds? It is something that many of us have wondered after being burdened with the seemingly endless stresses of modern life. Depending on the kind of person you are, you may have taken a scientific approach to achieve a calm and quiet mind – perhaps trying to get the correct amount of sleep in order to wake feeling refreshed and restored or choosing endorphin-rich foods and exercise.

Meanwhile, others look to spiritual practices, using meditation and candle-lit baths to shake off the mental weight of the day. Recently, however, neuroscience has been connecting the links between the two disciplines and finding that Buddhists may well have a point.

 

Feed the Mind with Positivity

Ever heard of the Mind and Life Institute? A collaboration between the Dalai Lama himself and a team of scientists, the group was set up in the late 80s. Together, they have shown that mind training is a very real tool and that we can all use it to our benefit.

So, if you have ever stood in front of your mirror repeating positive affirmations to yourself, you have been working to train your brain. Whether you felt silly, or not, repeating this process on a regular basis will have had a great benefit to your mind, leaving you feeling more confident and happier in the long run. Meditation is also proven to help bring peace to the mind, as the brain is emptied of negative thoughts. With several types of meditation, the focus is on the breath, which, by releasing physical tension, also measurably reduces stress and anxiety.

Back in 2013, Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina, a positive psychology researcher, published a landmark paper that provides fascinating insights about positive thinking and how it effects our life skills. Her work is among the most respected in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

She took groups of people and showed them different films. Some groups saw positive images while others saw negative images of fear and anger. Then each group had to come out and write about their experience and how they would react in a similar situation.

The groups who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses as they saw less options. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take. So positive emotions broaden our sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options in life.

She discovered that those who meditated daily had more positive thoughts than others who did not but that was just the tip of the iceberg. With her team of scientists, she found that people who experienced joy had useful side effects to their feelings that lasted far beyond the event.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.

Fredrickson believes this is due to the happy emotions enabling you to see all the possibilities surrounding you. The more you feed your positive thoughts, the better you become at reading situations and taking advantage of what life has to offer. Noticing all the options available to you at any time enables you to build new skills and flourish through life, even if you are not having the best day, because you have trained your mind to see the positives whenever possible.

Indeed, this research only confirms what wise teachers have always known. Buddha began the Dhammapada with the words: “We are what we think” and science has since proven that our thoughts are creative and essential for creating peptides that become part of new cells in the brain, with positive thoughts creating more positive peptides and negative thoughts creating negative ones. So, the more you practice being positive and peaceful, the more natural it will eventually become.

 

Give the Gift of Peace

At Peace Gifts Shop, we want to help you train your brain for the better, which is why many of our products feature a quote about peace and how you can achieve it, while others feature a beautiful image to remind us of peace. We sell t-shirts, mugs, and posters, amongst other items, with phrases from well-known teachers, authors and poets from various religions, traditions and cultures around the world. Every time you have a cup of tea or put on your favourite outfit, you will be reminded of the phrase or peaceful image and it will become further ingrained in your memory.

Of course, once we have discovered peace for ourselves, it is natural to want to share the joy. Our products make fantastic gifts for your good friends and all members of the family. Despite our reasonable prices, these gifts will become priceless to the recipient, helping them to think positively and feel at ease with the world.

Even better, every penny we make from the sale of our items is put towards our charity which provides education, inspiration and action to promote inter-religious harmony in our multi-faith society and in the Holy Land. So, help us to spread the love, since a world full of peaceful people is all we could ever hope for.