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Making Peace Personal: Jews, Muslims and Christians Reach Out and Discover "the Enemy Has a Face"

This article is reprinted with permission of USA Today. Visit www.usatoday.com.

When Sarah and Taoufik Abalil decided to get married, people told them it was bound to fail.

"There was concern that our marriage would be strained by crazy politics or competing loyalties," says Sarah Abalil, 27, a Jewish publications designer whose husband, 28, is a Muslim graduate student. "But every interfaith encounter has a period of adjustment and getting past the stereotypes."

Despite the pressures, the Fremont, Calif., couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. But it hasn't always been easy.

A few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sarah decided to organize an informal dialogue to educate people about each faith. The reception, though, was cool. Those she contacted were not ready to meet with "the other side" just yet.

Domestic and international incidents reflect a possibly growing tension among the faiths.

The attorneys general for California, Nebraska and Texas report surges in hate crimes in the past year, largely a result of a post-Sept. 11 backlash against Muslims and Arabs.

A man in Florida was charged with plotting to attack mosques. Anti-Semitic literature was found on lawns in Boston. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to breed animosity.

"There is no doubt that tension and longstanding turbulence in other parts of the world transfer into relations in the United States," says Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University and director of the school's Pluralism Project. Conflict abroad "affects friendships here and what people feel they can say even to their closest friends."

But even in these troubled times, Eck says, she has seen efforts on the personal level to maintain Jewish-Muslim-Christian relations in the USA.

"All of us need to be able to sort out religious communities from political use of religious symbols to rally us to different causes," she says. "Friendships displace globalizing stereotypes."

Positive relations, she says, usually don't make headlines.

Dawn Kepler of Oakland says that if it weren't for her son Jesse's best friend, Samir Belkacem, she probably would not know any Muslims. Samir's father, Ali Belkacem, from Algeria, describes himself as a liberal Muslim; the boy's mother, Lynne Haroun, is an American Christian. Kepler and her husband, Mark Snyder, are Jewish.

The couples' 11-year-old sons have been inseparable since preschool.

"I would never just walk up to them and say, 'Tell me your life story,'" says Kepler, 47, who does outreach work with interfaith couples. "But when you see them more, you start having more intimate conversations. How often do Muslims and Jews have repeated chances to interact?"

Both families say their varied faiths and cultural backgrounds are enriching. "Samir has attended Shabbat services with them, and we've gone over during Passover," says Belkacem, 47, who is a physicist and the boys' soccer coach. "There are so many similarities in the traditions."

Kepler says: "For me, having Ali as a friend is a wonderful thing. If you really want to know about Judaism or Muslims, you have to turn to someone; you can't just read a book. I feel fortunate to have someone to open doors so I can see new things."

Those at the International Camp for Conflict Resolution know what Kepler means. Every summer, the New York-based non-profit group Seeds of Peace brings together young people from troubled regions around the world to interact with peers from different backgrounds and learn peacemaking skills. This year, more than 450 teens attended the camp in Maine. The U.S. host delegates are selected by Seeds of Peace; other campers are chosen by their governments.

Amy Witt, 17, has been a member of the American delegation for two years. While growing up in a predominantly Jewish community in Chicago, Witt says, she generally heard only the Israeli side of the Middle East conflict.

Her first time at camp was the first time she had ever met a Muslim.

"You begin to coexist," she says. "When others tell of their personal struggles and (you) hear stories you can't ignore, you learn the enemy has a face. I left so many sessions in tears."

Last year, Witt befriended fellow camper Iman Azzi, 18, a Muslim of Lebanese descent. Azzi, a native of Exeter, N.H., says the three-week camp creates intense friendships that allow participants to learn about other cultures.

Though the camp does not focus specifically on religion, it does allow kids to be exposed to other faiths. For example, "Once they know a person likes P. Diddy like they do, they ask, 'What else is below this person? Can I ask more questions and probe them?'" says Rebecca Hankin, a Seeds of Peace spokeswoman. "They start asking why (he or she) keeps kosher or celebrates Ramadan, and they find out more about the person."

But both Witt and Azzi say their communities are hesitant about reaching out. Azzi says she once told a Palestinian friend about a Jewish acquaintance, and the friend told her: "You can't do that. Don't talk to him."

Witt says, "People don't like the idea. Some people don't like Arab-Israeli relationships. (They) have a really hard time seeing there are two sides. They say, 'Your friends aren't real.'"

Arab Christians often are caught in the middle. A Zogby International poll shows that 77% of Arab-Americans are Christians, and they tend to identify with the struggles of Arab Christians in the Middle East.

For Labib Kobti, pastor at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in San Francisco, interfaith relations are necessary to foster peace. The church serves a large number of Palestinians. He says many wonder whether peace is even possible, based on their personal experiences with Jews and Muslims.

"They've lost trust," he says. "But if I sit and watch, then I, too, will be cooperating in destroying our country. The least I can do is dialogue; at least then you are accomplishing something at a small level which could have a bigger effect."

Though interfaith organizations can help initiate dialogue, Sarah Abalil believes personal relationships are even more important. "It's ultimately not going to hinge on an Oslo accord or a treaty. Peace has to start in people's hearts--and that's what I'm proud to be a part of."

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.

Nafeesa Syeed is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area.

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