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US Activist Spearheads Grassroots Mideast Peace Effort

  • Faiza Elmasry

In this Dec. 14, 2007 file photo, a Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during a demonstration against Israel's separation barrier at the village of Bilin, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In this Dec. 14, 2007 file photo, a Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during a demonstration against Israel's separation barrier at the village of Bilin, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

While official peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are restarting at the highest levels, ongoing efforts also continue on the grassroots level.

Frank Romano, who lives in Paris, has been working for the past eight years to try to resolve the decades-long conflict. Since 2005, Romano has made more than 40 trips to Israel and the West Bank, where he brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together for interfaith dialogue.

“Some people even tell me I’m wasting my time talking about religion because this is not about religion," Romano said. "The conflict between Israel and Palestine is about historical claims to land, not religion.”

The peace activist says religion is interwoven throughout the conflict and he believes misunderstandings and lack of communication among religious groups have contributed to its longevity. He leads interfaith dialogues and projects to change that.

In these sessions, small groups of people of different faiths get together to eat, listen to music and talk about themselves, their families and life.

“The Christian says, ‘They don’t accept Jesus as their savior like I do.’ Then the Muslim will come out and say, ‘They don’t understand Mohamed the way I do.’ And the Jew will say, ‘They don’t have the same impression of Moses as we do,’" he said. "I say 'OK. Let’s just pick the Torah, the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran and we'll just look at them.' After an hour or two, they are actually astounded. They know...in theory that there are similarities, but when they see it in writing, it brings home the point that they are not as different as their religious and some political leaders lead them to believe. They are starting to think ‘OK, we have separate religions, but we maybe we do share the same God.’”

Mahmoud Muna, 29, is a Muslim Palestinian who has come to several of these sessions.

“Due to the Israeli barriers, the separation wall, there is a lot of separation between Palestinians and Israelis," he said. "We’re not any more having the easiness and ability to meet, sit down and talk. That's really been a major problem because when people don’t meet, they can easily be manipulated by the media. They can easily see each other's different realities.”

Israeli Ruth Victor, a 61-year-old kindergarten teacher, has also taken part in Romano’s interfaith dialogues.

“When you talk, you don’t shoot," she said. "I think it's better to meet the Palestinians in a gathering like that than on the battlefield...I’ve never lost hope in a peaceful solution. I think it will come someday.”

Discussing religious views is just the first step in Romano’s interfaith approach. He also organizes projects that send people out to work together.

“Replanting olive trees, thousands of them have been uprooted to put the walls in. We try to go on both sides of the wall, rebuild buildings and make them international schools as opposed to yeshivas, or madrassas or parochial schools," Romano said. "The third step is that individuals or groups get together and pressure their governments to do the right thing, to make durable peace. It's possible as opposed to continuing the conflict.”

Romano believes it all starts with people understanding each other, recognizing similarities and respecting differences. Without that, he says, it will be hard to even hope for peace in the Middle East.

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