The old man gently told the story: Abraham refused the idolator the hospitality of his tent because the idolator refused to accept Abrabams God. But, his God rebuked Abraham: All these years I have given this man life, health, and my loving care. And you will not offer him food and shelter for even one night!
This simple tale of the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, seems a fitting parable for the Middle East.
During July, I had the privilege of guiding Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore on their fact-finding mission to Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. Their task: together with Cardinal OConnor, to draft a new policy statement on the Middle East for U.S. bishops.
The most painful aspect of the trip was to listen to so many sincere and concerned people simple village folk, educators and professionals, patriarchs and bishops, presidents and government ministers and at the same time to encounter such profound distrust and misunderstanding. How often, deliberately or unwittingly, each would demand that the other accept his god, his absolute, alone.
For some, the larger conflicts had intimate, personal dimensions:
In the Palestinian village of Nahalin, the young widow tried to find seats for each of us in her tiny, bare living room. Two little girls clung to her skirt, while, with her small deaf son in her lap, she told how her husband was killed by Israeli soldiers on his way to work.
In the Israeli West Bank settlement of Alfey Menashe, Mayor Shlomo Kitani proudly showed us his gleaming, new little town. At the monument commemorating the tragic event, a young Jewish widower told us without rancor how his pregnant young wife and child were burnt to death when a Arab hurled a petrol bomb at his car.
We dropped into a clinic in Gaza where a seventeen year old was being treated for a bullet wound in his leg. With a spontaneous eloquence he spoke of being willing to die for his peoples freedom.
Prime Minister Shamir told us of how negotiations for peace must be conducted, President Mubarak spoke optimistically of the possibilities of peace, PLO leaders stressed the sincerity of their quest for a peaceful settlement.
So many different ideas, so many contradictory plans, so many hopes, so many fears and, running through them all, so much misunderstanding and so much distrust.
There are no easy answers.
In fact, the greatest temptation is to say there can be no answers at all. Much of the area we visited was once the kingdom of Solomon. But, it takes a greater than Solomon to find a way to bring peace to the Middle East.
Please God, he will!
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA