A wave of Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed has swept through Jerusalem these past few weeks. Each side blamed the other for inciting and escalating the violence that has been characterized by seemingly random stabbings carried out by young Palestinians with no apparent affiliation to militant groups. The stabbings have been met with swift and lethal response from Israeli troops. From Jerusalem the violence has spread to the West Bank and Gaza, where hundreds of Palestinians have been wounded.
At its heart, the current controversy was ignited by a dispute over the ground rules governing the holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary or Al-Haram al-Sharif. The third holiest site in Islam, Muslims believe it is the location from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The site contains the ancient Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques.
Jews, regarding the location as the holiest place of their religion, believe that it is the site of their biblical Temples. Currently, Jews worship at the Western Wall, on the edge of the compound. The current controversy, sparked by an increase in Jewish visitors, concerns the question of who should administer the site and which religious groups are permitted to pray in which locations.
In startling contrast to the city of Jerusalem, a place where controversy over how a holy site is to be shared has led to flashing knives and flying bullets, in the town of Bentonville, Arkansas, a proposal for Jews, Christians and Muslims to share the same sacred space, has resulted in earnest conversation, a cooperative spirit and fast friendships.
Since early this past spring, representatives from Congregation Etz Chaim, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and the Bentonville Islamic Center have gathered for bi-weekly sessions to explore the possibility of building a sacred space that would be jointly owned by all three congregations. On a purely practical level, the plan makes perfect sense. In Bentonville, the Muslims need the primary auditorium space at 1:00 on Friday afternoons, for Jumu’ah, the principle prayer service. The Jews need the main gathering hall on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. The Christians use the main sanctuary on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. The arrangement would enable all three congregations to put into practice their collective desire to be good stewards of our God given resources.
Our conversations have been far reaching, initially focusing on the necessity of maintaining each religion’s separate identity and unique religious practices, while creating a space that provides opportunities for discovering commonalities among the separate religions and occasions for cooperative endeavors. Many sessions have focused on practical concerns such as governance, ownership, fundraising, building design, security, and religious calendars. However, permeating our discussions has been a recognition of the Abrahamic heritage common to each of our faiths and a desire to find common ground.
Each of our congregations acknowledges what a bold exploration we have undertaken. If the endeavor is successful, it will be the first time that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have come together to build a space where all three religions worship together in harmony under the same roof. As best we can tell, this kind of coming together has literally never happened before on the face of the earth.
It’s extraordinary really, that in a small in Arkansas town, known primarily has the home of Walmart, there could exist an environment in which open-minded people from the three great Abrahamic faiths could find a way to work together in a spirit of trust and cooperation. In a world filled with religious strife, the people of Bentonville have the opportunity to provide an example of how a spirit of peace and cooperation can prevail over ignorance, suspicion and distrust.
We recognize that there is much work required and many obstacles to be overcome before such an ambitious vision can be realized. The delegations of each congregation are on the threshold of completing a document that outlines the vision and presents a blueprint for implementation of the plan. When the document is completed, each individual congregation will review the document and determine their willingness and capacity to move forward.
The endeavor has ramifications that reach far beyond the interests of the three congregations. A successful tri-faith initiative such as this would point to the community of Bentonville as a place of great hope and inspiration for the rest of the world. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Far from being simple or naïve, hope demands, creates and is the expression of indomitable moral courage.” We request the prayers of all faithful people as our congregations seek the courage to discern God’s will in this thrilling enterprise.