September 22, 2003

120 American religious leaders marched silently today to the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic faiths, hand in hand with some 500 of their counterparts from Israel, for the cause of peace. The American Pastors, Rabbis, Imams and other religious leaders from the U.S. are visiting Israel for “Pilgrimage to the Holy Land II: Mission of Peace and Reconciliation.” The “Peace Walk” began from the Jaffa Gate in the Old City at 9:00 a.m, and proceeded to some of the holiest sites of the 3 Abrahamic faiths.
Despite their obvious harmony, the marchers met with some initial resistance as they neared the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as some of the area’s custodians were unprepared of the presence of the large group. Although the marchers had obtained permits for the planned route, security forces were skeptical of the group’s intent, and sensitive to the interreligious tensions that might result from their presence. One-by-one the march’s leaders stepped forward, Jews, Moslems, and Christians, to explain their 

sincere goals and genuine solidarity. With the warm approval of local Orthodox leaders, the police suddenly embraced the march’s purpose, escorting the group smoothly through each of the checkpoints along the route.
The marchers proceed silently, hand in hand, to the Western Wall, and finally to the Dome of the Rock, where they entered and met with the Imams there. The group then transferred by bus to the Public Square at the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives, where prayers, greetings and encouragement were offered by Jewish, Moslem, Christian, Druze, Orthodox, Ethiopian, Buddhist and other leaders. Songs, prayers and Blessings filled the atmosphere, as participants felt a sense of victory after witnessing the power of unity and good will to overcome the barriers between divergent groups.
A number of activist peace organizations co-sponsored and participated in the day’s events. Most of the Christian Clergy, were part of the “Pilgrimage to the Holy Land” sponsored by the American Clergy Leadership Conference (ACLC). They are among hundreds of U.S. pastors who have taken down the crosses from their churches, seeking to remove the barriers that divide Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and calling for an end to violence, terrorism and bloodshed. Participating American leaders included Archbishop George Augustus Stallings, Jr., patriarch of the African-American Catholic Congregation, Rabbi David Ben-Ami, founder of the American Forum for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Cooperation; Imam Haitham Bundakji, Imam of the Islamic Society of Orange County, California; the Honorable Donzella James, Senator from the state of Georgia, USA (ret.); Rev. Michael Jenkins, Co-convener, Million Family March, Dr. Lonnie McLeod, pastor and professor at New York Theological Seminary; Bishop Floyd Nelson of Bibleway Church Worldwide; Rev. Jesse Edwards, pastor of Pentecostal Family Church of Philadelphia, Pastor T.L. Barrett, Illinois Superintendent of the Church of God in Christ; Dr. H.G. McGhee, member of the board of the Hampton Ministers Conference; Dr. Chang Shik Yang, Chairman of the ACLC; and a number of others. 
Co-sponsoring the Peace Walk in Israel is the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IIFWP), and several other activist organizations for peace. A number of leaders from many faiths in the Middle East will join the march, including Sheik Moaffaq Tarif, Head of Israel’s Druze Community; Rabbi Moshe Chen, Sheikh Mohammad Kiwan, Imam of Majd El Kurum; Ven. Junsei Terasawa, a Buddhist Monk renowned for his desperate efforts to avert violence in Iraq even hours before the war began earlier this year, and Hon. Walid Zadek, Member of Knesset (ret.). 
The marchers released a “Message of Peace from the Holy City” at the Mount of Olives gathering, addressing the spiritual and religious dimensions of the current Middle East crisis and calling for religions to work together to provide a common vision and moral guidance for elected civic leaders. “We understand and respect the concern of governments to protect and defend their citizens, but it should be clear to all of us by now that political and military means alone will never bring us lasting peace,” said Archbishop George Stallings, one of the organizers of the American pilgrimage. “We call upon religious leaders and all sincere men and women of faith to stand together as one people under one God, and be examples of peace and reconciliation rather than continuing to allow hatred and bitterness to divide us.”
A symposium following the march inaugurated a regional peace council, one of a network of such councils recently being established around the world by the IIFWP. “Instead of shedding blood over our religious differences, we need to reach deep down to the common values that all great religions share: love, service of others, tolerance, forgiveness, patience and understanding,” said noted Rabbi David Ben-Ami. “Without these higher values, negotiations based upon competing national interests will remain fruitless, and the cycle of violence will only increase. We urgently need the wisdom and insight of our great religious traditions, working in harmony to support and guide the efforts of political and civic leaders.” The organizers of today’s Peace Walk are calling for the establishment of such interreligious peace councils at every level, from local governments to the United Nations. 
The peace council initiative was first introduced by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the IIFWP, in a speech delivered at the United Nations in August 2000. The IIFWP has appointed some 30,000 “Ambassadors for Peace” in 190 nations, including current and former heads of state, diplomats, legislators, and leaders in the fields of education, religion, media and the arts. The American Clergy Leadership Conference is an interdenominational organization of 15,000 Christian pastors and leaders of other faiths. Established in June 2000, their focus is to break down the walls of race and denomination and unite religious leaders to “rebuild the family, restore the community, and renew the nation and the world.” A large number of ACLC pastors have taken the crosses down from their churches in a gesture of reconciliation with people of other faiths. 
ACLC pastors are quick to reassure that taking down the cross is not meant to undermine the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial atonement at Calvary. “As believers we are washed in the blood of the lamb, to be sure,” said Bishop C. Philip Johnson, Senior Pastor of the New Prospect Family Worship Center in Washington, DC, who joined the pilgrimage with his wife. “But what did Christ command us? Jesus told us to break bread & receive communion in remembrance of him. He told us to love one another, that all men may know we are his. As for the cross, he told us to carry it, not to hang it up. The world must know we are Christians by our love,” he said.
New York pastor Dr. H.G. McGhee is concerned that too many Christians are clinging to traditional symbols that may dilute the meaning of Christ’s message. “We cling to symbols and signs,” he says. “But Jesus is the center of our faith, and instead of just focusing on what he did for us, it is high time we ask ourselves, ‘what can we do for him?’ We must internalize the cross, McGhee asserted, “and carry it as Jesus did, not to conquer but to serve others.”
“To Christians, the cross represents God’s abiding love for His children,” notes prominent theologian Dr. Lonnie McLeod. “But tragically, the history of pogroms, crusades, inquisitions, and the Ku Klux Klan have made the cross a symbol of intolerance, anti-semitism, and religious prejudice to people of other faiths. The best way to express our faith in Jesus is not by wearing a symbol around our necks, but by loving our enemies, and blessing those that curse us. Jesus said that whoever would be greatest among us should serve, and we hope to provide that kind of an example before asking other faiths to follow suit, McLeod explained.”
Reverend Michael Jenkins, national Co-Convener of the ACLC, pointed out, “Jerusalem is a city of love and prayer. But this holy city, and the people of this nation whether Arab or Jew, are suffering through a time of unimaginable bloodshed. Jesus overcame the pain and suffering of the cross by loving his enemies and forgiving those who persecuted him. Just as he overcame death and was resurrected through love, only by forgiving our enemies and truly loving one another can we end the bloodshed and usher in an era of lasting peace. This is, in fact, the promise of the Scriptures,” Jenkins asserted. “But we must make it a reality.”