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Peace Day in Jerusalem: an Interfaith Walk for Peace

Elana Rozenman and Ibtisam Mahameed

We are Ibtisam, a Muslim woman from Fureidis and Elana, a Jewish woman from Jerusalem, and this is how we celebrated World Peace Day on September 21, 2003,  by meditating and praying at the holiest sites in Jerusalem: Haram Al-Sharif, the Western (Wailing) Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

We had met a year and a half before at a meeting of the United Religions Initiative in Berlin as part of the Israeli delegation of the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). As we shared our girl-talk about our husbands and children lying in bed the first night, Ibtisam commented that her friends back home would be shocked that she was going to sleep next to an unknown Jewish woman because they'd be afraid that she’d be knifed during the night. Elana protested that she was the one who should be afraid,  because it's the Arabs who knife the Jews! 

After we stopped laughing, we decided to create a branch of the Women's Interfaith Encounter program of the IEA in Northern Israel. Since then, we've held meetings monthly for over a year with Muslim, Druze, Christian and Jewish women. Lasting friendships have been formed, stereotypes with all their mistrust and fear have been altered, and women have created an oasis of camaraderie, tolerance, and respect for each other's traditions.

Ibtisam had been brought to Jerusalem through the generosity of our friend Dena Merriam from New York who was meeting with us as part of the Women’s Partnership for Peace in the Middle East, a project of the Spiritual and Religious Women’s Global Peace Initiative.  Ibtisam and Elana invited her to join us to meditate and pray for peace on UN World Peace Day in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The three of us entered through the Dung Gate and went through the security check to enter the Western (Wailing) Wall Plaza, where the appearance of a Muslim woman in traditional dress drew attention. Someone asked Ibtisam where she was from. She said that she was from the village of Fureidis. An Orthodox Jewish man standing nearby said he lived in the nearby town of Zichron Yaacov. They immediately started chatting about mutual friends there, and the police stopped querying her. As we approached the Temple Mount/ Haram Al-Sharif the Israeli police began another round of questioning about where we were from. Elana explained that she is a Jerusalemite and was bringing her friends to visit and they let us through. We headed over to Al Aqsa Mosque where we saw Muslim women entering and leaving. Ibtisam approached the Waqf guards and asked if we could enter. He told her that she could go in, but that it was closed to non-Muslims. 

We walked across the expansive and beautiful grounds, past many lovely old trees, and walked up the steps to the Dome of the Rock which houses the huge stone that is said to be the place where Abraham brought Isaac for the sacrifice and where the Prophet Mohammed departed for his night ride back to Mecca. We went over to an entrance where we saw women going in and out and Ibtisam inquired in Arabic if we could enter. There were two lovely women in long black robes with blue patches stating "Al Aqsa Guards" who again said that she could enter, but not the non-Muslims.  Elana asked them why they couldn't enter, especially since she had entered there five years ago with no problem. The guard said that because Ariel Sharon had come there three years ago, now only Muslims could enter. When we told her that didn't make any sense, she smiled and said these were the rules. Elana asked if men had made these rules, and we started laughing together.

Several Muslim women spoke with Ibtisam. Some of them were suspicious and asked what she was doing with us, and asked why she came there with non-Muslims. She explained that we are sisters working together and they were very interested to hear more. They told her that they were happy she was doing this work, that they need more of it, that we should continue and be blessed in our work together. We said we were pleased to see  women guarding the mosque and handling important things. One guard said that she hoped soon we would be able to come back and she could invite us to enter the Mosques. EIana asked her if she would then be interested to come down and visit the Kotel – the Western (Wailing) Wall --and she hugged her and said "Yes, inshallah," and we took pictures together hugging and kissing.

We found a serene pergola with a geometric shape and a lovely decorated stone floor. The three of us sat in a circle in the center of it and meditated for 15 minutes, calling upon God to strengthen us with the power of this tremendous source of spiritual energy that we were sitting upon, just a few meters from the Dome of the Rock, from the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple and a place revered by millions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews all over the world. When we finished, Dena said "Om Shanti, Shalom, Salaam". Elana said the Hebrew prayer " He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us, and upon all Israel."  and added "and upon all peoples". Ibtisam chanted a prayer for peace in Arabic.

Then we went through the Arab market to the Via Dolorosa and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. People came to assist us and show us to the place which is said to be the Tomb of Jesus. We quietly entered the small grotto which can hold only three people at a time. Ibtisam said that Jesus was a revered prophet for her and knelt to pray. We offered a prayer for this symbol of peace to be a force for reconciliation in the world.

When we returned through the Arab market to the entrance to the Western (Wailing) Wall Plaza, the police started questioning who we were.  Elana explained that they were her guests. Ibtisam smiled and told the policewoman to relax.

The policewomen replied,"I know when I should relax" and she called her superior over.

The superiorasked "What's the problem?"

Elana explained there was no problem and they were just friends visiting with her. After checking Ibtisam's information in the computer they finally relaxed and smiled and wished us a good visit. Ibtisam felt badly about all the suspicion and mistrust towards her. Elana explained that  when her own son was severely injured in a triple suicide bombing, one of the bombers had worn the dress and scarf of an Arab woman to hide his explosive belt, so no one is beyond suspicion.

As we approached the Western Wall where all the women were praying, an older Orthodox Jewish woman asked loudly in Hebrew, "Who is she? Why is an Arab woman here?" and we could see she was upset and afraid.

Suddenly, another older Orthodox Jewish woman came rushing over to us and grabbed Ibtisam's hand and said how happy she was to see her. She said that she had come from Iran and that Muslims and Jews lived peacefully together there, visiting each other’s homes. She said she was so happy to see Ibtisam because she knows that Muslims and Jews can live together in peace, that Muslims are good people too. Ibtisam started hugging her and soon they were embracing and kissing. Ibtisam explained that she was brought here by her Jewish sister and the woman was very excited to hear that we were working together. She went to the other Jewish woman who was still asking loudly what we were doing there and she said "It's all right. Don't worry. She's a good woman. She's a friend of the Jewish woman and they work together. Jews and Muslims can be friends.” We were very moved by the openness and love of this woman who embraced us all with such love and excitement.

We approached the Western (Wailing) Wall and kissed it, offering a prayer of appreciation to God for strengthening us with so many amazing experiences and so much love and acceptance. We thanked God for revealing how even the mistrust and suspicion and fear that we had encountered as people wondered who we were and why we were together, could be transformed as people relaxed and opened their hearts to us because they saw we were simply sisters working together in harmony and love. There was no talk of politics or security or injustice or blame or vengeance, just simple women sharing their religious sites with each other and sharing their love.

Elana Rozenman

Jerusalem, Israel

Ibtisam Mahameed

Fureidis, Israel

 Elana Rozenman and Ibtisam Mahameed, are Coordinators of the WIE -- Women's Interfaith Encounter, a program of the IEA (Interfaith Encounter Association) www.interfaith-encounter.org , based in Jerusalem.

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