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Peace through encounter. A reflection from Carl Hétu.

06 Feb 2018 – A few weeks ago, I joined a group of bishops from around the world on their annual trip to Israel/Palestine. The purpose of this visit was to learn about the life on the ground of minority Christians and to show solidarity with them and the population in general.

This year, we went out in search of youth — to listen to their voices and engage them on questions of hope. We met young people of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, and of both Israeli and Palestinian descent. Their responses shared a common theme: we live in the shadow of a conflict that we did not create and do not want, and we desire peace, above all.

Amid physical walls, mounting fear and suspicion, there is good news that brings hope for future change-here is one example.

We met two young men from the ‘Parents Circle Families Forum,’ which is made of more than 600 families. They are under 30 years old; one Palestinian and one Israeli. Both of these men have lost a family member due to the conflict. Instead of falling into despair or turning to violence and blame, they found commonality by connecting through their pain. They now work together to show that differences in religion, race and nationality don’t need to create division, but rather they can be assets in building friendship and peace.

I came back to Canada in time for the commemoration of the first year anniversary of the Québec City mosque shooting that took place on January 29, 2017. Since this terrible act of violence, there has not only been a rise in acts of racism, intolerance and discrimination toward Muslims all over the country, but also toward Jews, and yes, Christians, too. How do we make sure such an attack doesn’t happen again in our country? I believe the answer is through dialogue and an understanding of differences.

We can learn from people experiencing deep divide in their society, like the two men I met from Israel and Palestine. We, too, need to stimulate dialogue and create opportunities in Canada to encounter each other.

A few groups already exist to do just this. For instance, four years ago, a small group of Christians and Muslims in the city of Gatineau, Québec, decided to create a space for dialogue and understanding, and I joined them. At first, Muslims and Christians sat on opposite sides of the table, debating each other’s beliefs — however, it evolved into something much more precious: friendship. Now the group organizes public events and invites people to get out of their comfort zone and join in these important encounters. Our country can benefit from more initiatives like this.

We often forget that the Middle East has centuries of experience in dealing with different faiths, cultures and nationalities. Despite current conflicts, they have a lot to teach us. At CNEWA, we have spent the past 90 years in the region establishing programs that accompany the local Catholic Church in creating opportunities for people of all faiths to encounter each other in non-threatening ways. Over the past decades, we’ve seen these encounters create paths toward understanding and dialogue which forges lasting peace for all.

In my several trips to Israel and Palestine, I’ve seen many people go against the tide, working to build lasting peace. It takes courage to face our differences and share with each other, but when we do, we discover that we have more in common with each other than we realize.

Here in Canada, this is a newer reality for us. The world has changed and we need to learn from our friends of the Middle East. Many people have come here to escape violence and to live in peace. Let’s make sure this becomes a reality for them.