Participants of the Three Faiths Forum on their visit to Israel. This was the first ever trip to Israel organized by a predominantly Muslim group from the UK.Pious Christians and Jews make regular pilgrimages to Israel, despite the safety concerns, which often fade away soon after arrival. They visit the churches and synagogues, the Western Wall and famous sites like Masada at the Dead Sea and Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. But what’s been stopping America’s Muslim population from visiting Israel’s holy sites, which they share with the other two monotheistic religions?
When the UK-based Three Faiths Forum put out a call that they would be arranging a six-day tour for Christians, Muslims and Jews to Israel, the response from the Muslim community was overwhelming. Of the 26 participants, 23 were Muslims, two were Christian and one was a Jew. It was the first trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority organized by a predominantly Muslim group from the UK, though other British Imam’s have made the trip as private visitors, or from Jordan.
Rabbi David Hulbert of Bet Tikvah Synagogue in East London, and an organizer of the trip, said in retrospect the answer as to why Muslims don’t visit Israel was obvious. British Jews are a little different from American ones, he says, in that if they have an interest in Israel, they’ve already made the trip. That’s due to the proximity of Israel to England — close enough that a good deal of Christian pilgrims makes the voyage on a regular basis as well.
For the Muslims however, despite Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque being a holy site in their religion, most don’t feel they are welcome. “Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holy place after Mecca and Medina. They wanted to go with their own eyes and never had the ‘permission’,” says Hulbert, explaining that not having permission, although not official, is something that the Muslims feel. “There are no Muslim tours,” he tells ISRAEL21c, and the press coverage out of Israel might make them think they would face “racism and discrimination.”
A pledge to support Israel
In Israel, the group’s actual experience counteracted any propaganda they had read about Israel. Imam Dr. Mohammed Fahim of the South Woodford Community Center in South Woodford, said he felt proud to be the first British Imam to visit Israel, and that he pledged to raise funds for a multi-faith hospital he visited during the short trip: Poria Hospital outside of Tiberius.
“Before I went I had a completely different idea of what I was going to see,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I saw a hospital where the doctors, nurses and staff were Jews or Palestinians yet all worked together and there was no discrimination against any patients.”
The visit to the hospital in particular, was inspiring he says. “We saw how people are living together. There might be problems among a minority of people, but it is largely peaceful… We were treated with dignity and respect wherever we went. It’s a beautiful country and I would like to go again, hopefully with many more people from our center.”
Free and secure
Rabbi Hulbert agrees that one of the highlights of the trip was the hospital, which is “blind to ethnic priority.” Dr. Fahim wandered around the maternity ward, and having been born in Egypt was able to chat with the local people in Arabic. “They were fascinated by seeing Muslims from London,” says Hulbert who is looking into ways of expanding the trip.
“I was impressed by the lack of any obvious security in the Old City,” he says. “People could go where they want to.” One example was the 4am morning prayers where the British Muslims got to join their brethren in Jerusalem, among a sea of people. They got to see that “Israel was a free country and people’s religious rights are preserved,” says Hulbert, explaining that the trip came about because members of the Forum expressed an interest in visiting Israel.
“It was wonderful to see the country through their eyes. The trip went smoothly,” concludes Hulbert.