October 11, 2019


You may have heard that we’ve recently added a new chapter to the Musalaha curriculum on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). FoRB is the right to have, to choose, to change, to leave or to not have a religion, but what does it have to do with our work in reconciliation?

In intractable conflict, like the one in Israel-Palestine, religious identity and worldview play a more and more important role over time. Conflict has the power to weaponize peoples’ religion, fueling intolerance that creates a serious threat to many religious communities. So we decided to look into it. As we dove deeper into FoRB in the Holy Land, we realized that while originally we had thought the key issue was government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices, the reality is that for Musalaha, ethnic-religious hostility between groups in our communities is a far greater barrier to reconciliation. A recent report by the think tank, PEW, finds that while government restrictions in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) have consistently been the highest worldwide over the last decade, social hostilities between religious groups are fast becoming our greatest threat to peace.

The PEW report, which takes into account 198 countries’ levels of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities between religious groups from 2007-2017, unpacks this further.
A short summary of the report shows:

  • Palestine is 10th in the list of countries with high levels of violence by organized religious groups.
  • Israel scored 6th in the list of countries with high levels of interreligious tension and violence.
  • Israel scored as the 13th country with the most restrictive laws and policies towards religious freedom in 2017.

Before we dive a little deeper into the PEW report, you’re probably asking, “But what does ‘government restrictions’ actually mean?” Government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices include enforcing laws and policies that restrict religious freedom, such as requiring that religious groups register in order to operate, and government favoritism of religious groups, like funding specific religious education, property, and clergy. While it’s true that PEW finds Israel to have some of the most restrictive laws and policies towards religious freedom — contributing to religious discrimination and the widening gap in the hierarchy of religious groups — overall Israel and Palestine both fulfill the requirements of FoRB in their laws, allowing people to practice their religion freely. In fact, compared to many other countries, we’re often more free from government restrictions here than we think we are.

To our surprise, this report more clearly shows that social hostilities involving religion are becoming a greater issue for reconciliation in the Holy Land than government restrictions. As a grassroots movement, bringing change through the people in our communities, this hostility directly correlates to Musalaha’s ministry. Social religious hostilities are,‘Violence and harassment by private individuals, organizations or groups, effectively hindering the religious activities of targeted individuals or groups’. Since 2007, the largest increase in religious violence by organized groups has occurred in Europe and the Middle East-North Africa (MENA), however, the level of violence in MENA more than doubles the score of any other region in 2017. Israelis and Palestinians face some of the highest levels, and greatest increases, of social religious hostilities in the world. Though people experience relative freedom to practice their religion under the state, PEW proves that Palestinians and Israelis are becoming more threatened to do so by hostile religious groups. This is causing great distress for our minority communities, including Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews, who are increasingly targeted by violent mainstream groups, and raises an important question for Musalaha: How do we address the increasing divide between hostile religious communities?

A stronger emphasis on FoRB was recently added to Musalaha’s Curriculum to empower Israeli and Palestinian leaders to become peacemakers, promoting reconciliation including knowledge, skills, and change in attitude about FoRB. By integrating FoRB into some of our group workshops already, we’ve found that our religious communities often find it challenging to promote FoRB for other religious groups, but desperately seek it for their own. The fascinating learning from this is that identity is inseparable from FoRB. What we mean here is that FoRB is naturally seen through our personal lens; of how it applies to our own life, not through big-picture thinking of how it affects others. For example, one Christian women’s group we trained in FoRB expressed that they’re used to always seeing themselves as victims to social religious hostilities from other groups, but it helped them to empathize with Muslims by finding that they too feel like victims. The issue that comes from putting our personal lens on FoRB is that it hinders religious freedom for others.

Worldview and religious identity are playing an important role in Israeli and Palestinian communities living in intractable conflict. The issue of social hostilities between religious communities is an important aspect of reconciliation that needs to be addressed. Not only in our part of the world but globally too. Adding FoRB into our curriculum enables our groups to better understand the dynamics of religious hostilities between communities in order to enhance their endeavor for reconciliation.

Salim J. Munayer
Musalaha Executive Director