Holy Land pilgrimage can lead to inter-religious understanding

Pilgrims to the Holy Land who are searching for the roots of Christianity can also gain a surprisingly rich understanding of other religions, according to a prominent Franciscan clergyman. 

"A pilgrim does not come to the Holy Land to understand politics or to understand the geography. First and foremost he is a religious pilgrim," said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, whose formal title is Custodian of the Holy Land and who is the head of all Franciscans in the region. "But of course when they come here as Christians they are exposed to the understanding and the presence of other Christians … and understand what ecumenical dialogue is and why it is so important." 

He spoke at a two-day interfaith conference on pilgrimage held from 28 to 29 December in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Israel-based Elijah Interfaith Institute and the Swiss-based Lasalle-Haus, also an interfaith organization. Pilgrims are also exposed, sometimes for the first time, to Jews and Muslims living within their own context, he said. "An encounter with Jesus can't be separated from an encounter with the people of different religions (in this land)," he said. 

Modern-day pilgrim Franz Mali, a 51-year-old Austrian professor living in Switzerland, undertook a seven-month hiking pilgrimage to the Holy Land that started in Switzerland and wound through Italy, Austria, eastern Europe, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. The trip gave him a new view of the many Muslim migrant workers from Turkey and Syria living in Switzerland. 

"(The migrant workers) were always strangers to me," said Mali. "But now I have had this experience (with them in their own countries) and they were so nice and friendly and now I have an idea of how friendly they can be. My attachment to foreigners inside Switzerland, and Islam, will be completely different as a result." 

Jesuit priest Christian Rutishauser, program director of Lassalle-Haus who also participated in the seven-month pilgrimage, emphasized the importance of walking for spiritual deepening. "Not only does it deepen your own faith, it broadens your world view," he said. 

Although the group was not able to recruit Muslims or Jews to this year's journey, Rutishauser envisioned a trip where pilgrims of different faiths might learn from each other's sacred texts. A dialogue in this context, he said, would be less confrontational then sitting around a table. 

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, founder and director of the Elijah Institute, noted that pilgrimages carry eternal lessons. "The spirit which defined the pilgrimages by foot of centuries past remains in our world today as a source of inspiration and hope," he said. 

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowicz, rabbi of the Western Wall, noted that a pilgrim must rise above self-interest. 

"A pilgrimage is not just physical but it is also an intent to separate from your personal thoughts and to look upward," he said, noting that he welcomed prayers from all pilgrims in Jerusalem and urged all pilgrims to behave respectfully not only in their holy places but also in the holy places of other faiths. 

Muslim speakers at the conference included Moroccan poet and peace activist Abel Damoussi and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, of the Cordoba Initiative in New York, a multi-faith organization.

Judith Sudilovsky


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