Arabs and Jews Undertake Pilgrimage of Reconciliation to Auschwitz

Interview with Father Shoufani of Nazareth, Organizer of the Initiative

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NAZARETH, Israel, MAY 26, 2003 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- At the initiative of a priest from Nazareth, Arabs and Jews set out to visit Auschwitz in order to remember the Holocaust and to promote the reconciliation of the two peoples.



Three months ago, when Father Emile Shoufani, the parish priest of the Greek-Melkite Catholic community, launched the initiative, he thought some 300 would join. In fact, 125 Israeli Arabs, 25 Christians, 100 Muslims and 135 Jews have agreed to participate in the four-day pilgrimage, which began today.

They have been joined by 200 Frenchmen and Belgians, 140 of whom are Arabs (half Christians and half Muslims), as well as 100 journalists.

In addition to visiting Auschwitz, in Poland, the pilgrims will also go to Wadowice, birthplace of John Paul II "whose teaching and commitment to reconciliation between Arabs and Jews has inspired me," Father Shoufani explained. The priest is of Palestinian background but Israeli citizenship, and is archimandrite of the Melkite Church of Galilee.

Q: How did the idea arise for such a bold project?

Father Shoufani: The idea of the project "Memoria for Peace," of a joint pilgrimage of Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz, came to me during several meetings we had with students and professors in the Catholic school of which I am director.

They had become increasingly difficult since the beginning of the second intifada, which has caused an almost total break between Israelis and Palestinians. I realized that, in order to continue the dialogue, it was perhaps necessary to try to make peace with history.

Q: How did your personal knowledge of the Holocaust come about?

Father Shoufani: I learned about the Holocaust when I was studying in France, through a book on Treblinka, which appeared in 1966. It was the first time I read about it and I realized that the Holocaust was not simply a page of history, but really the annihilation of a people.

That same year I visited the Dachau concentration camp: I was so overcome, to the point of not being able to continue my trip. I experienced the profound misery of man and of humanity. I am convinced that to understand the Jewish people, it is necessary to hear what they say about their history and about the Holocaust.

Q: What was the reaction of Jews and Arabs when you told them about the project Memoria for Peace?

Father Shoufani: When telling Jewish friends about the project, I discovered certain reservations -- they were sure that I would meet with the firm opposition of the Arabs.

It was necessary to overcome this attitude, to hear this reaction. Now, dozens of Israeli Jews have agreed to talk about the Holocaust. People of all social classes, of the left, men and women, religious and nonreligious.

As regards the Arabs, there has been the same acceptance, as the appeal I made has become an initiative of the Arab community. Many people wished to participate in the preparatory meetings.

Q: The initiative has been carefully prepared with conferences in which Arabs and Jews have participated. Why?

Father Shoufani: Not only did we want to visit symbolic places, such as Auschwitz, but we wanted to know more about the genocide, about the extermination of the Jewish people by Nazism. The place is very important, but it is also important to prepare oneself before going, to listen to people who know and who lived at that time.

Many say they know what happened, but there are many people who have never heard talk about the Shoah [Holocaust]. They don't know what it was, how it is present today in the thinking of the Jewish world. It was a necessary preparation that has brought understanding and awareness as a consequence.

Q: In one of those preparatory meetings, a young Palestinian said: "I am not interested in the sufferings the Jews were subjected to 50 years ago; I now have my own."

Father Shoufani: Too many judgments are expressed today; easy comparisons are made of all sufferings.

Of course there is the reality of suffering. We are all wounded, humiliated. That is, all the peoples of this region, Palestinians and Israelis, Hebrews and Arabs, we have a very deep wound.

But I answer: We cannot compare histories marked by suffering; instead, it is necessary to listen to and assume the suffering of the other. Our initiative consists of listening to the Jewish suffering, of becoming aware: conscious of carrying out a gesture that does not call for anything in return. I see it as a liberating act.

Q: Have you found this openness in the Muslims of Nazareth?

Father Shoufani: Those who have supported the initiative are an image of the whole of Arab-Israeli society, which is Muslim in the majority. The objective of this initiative also consists in showing that the Israeli Arabs have never wanted to threaten the state of Israel. Some dozens of people, a percentage I cannot quantify, has different ideas, but the desire of the Israeli Arabs is to be Israeli citizens, to build a new trust.