The participants in Faithlink - a British-based student interface network - are all in agreement that coming to Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been nothing short of an "eye-opener," both politically and religiously.
The group, comprised of Christian, Muslim and Hindu Brits, and one British Jew, was touring Israel and the PA to gain a wider perspective on interfaith relations, as well as a firsthand view of what they call the "cornerstone" of a wider regional conflict.
"It is a symbolic reference to the greater Middle East conflict," trip participant Matt Huish observed.
For Huish and his group, the experience is not just a trip in the classical sense, where you "get the T-shirt and go home," but a continuing project.
Trip leader Simon Cooper explained that the dynamics of the trip have allowed group members to forge relationships and make contacts that will allow for future projects.
"We will also bring our observations back to our European friends," Huish said, noting that while European governments are very much involved in the goings-on in the region, the younger generation is less interested. "They're apathetic, they need to be inspired," Huish said.
While the diverse politics of Israel greatly impressed the group, Israel's rich and varied religious culture left a greater impression, and surpassed their initial expectations. "I found a new respect for Judaism," trip participant Siraj Ahmed said. "I was also impressed by the similar etiquettes of Jews and Muslims that we were exposed to when we participated in a Shabbat dinner."
"I am Hindu, and I was born far away from Jews and never had any interaction with them," said Anoj Silwal, who was born in Nepal. "But I am completely fascinated by their different religious practices - the chanting, the praying, the spirituality - I really admire it."
For Harrison Cohen, the lone Jew on the trip, driving through West Bank checkpoints and the security fence is a difficult thing, especially while trying not to convey any bias toward either side.
"It is very hard, as a Jew, not to involve your personal feelings," Cohen said, and stressed the importance of creating a nonpartisan atmosphere so that the participants can get an objective view of the range of issues.
Since arriving in Israel at the beginning of the week, they have met with Martin Luther King III, visited Bethlehem and the Dehaishe camp just outside of that city and toured the Knesset, where they met with MK Michael Melchior.
"Mr. Melchior told us that in every religion, there is some totalitarian aspect, however minute, and that every post-Cold War conflict has been a religious one. Well, this one certainly has religious overtones, too," said one of the participants.
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