A Punjabi delegation completes a Holy Land peace pilgrimage.
By GIL STERN STERN ZOHAR
Earlier this week, an international delegation of 17 Sikhs led by His Holiness Bhai Sahiba Ji completed an eight-day pilgrimage across Israel and the Palestinian Territories Monday, having met with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Baha'i religious leaders in the hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through ecumenical dialogue.
"Israel is a country of contrasts with the potential for being the center of peace in the world," Gurcharam Singh told In Jerusalem. "There is a huge potential for God to bring peace. The desire is there from the people." Singh lives in Birmingham, Britain but was born near Amritsar in India's northern state of Punjab - the homeland of the world's 20-million Sikhs. This week, he was part of a Sikh Diaspora mission that included men and women from London, Birmingham and Leeds in Britain as well as from Nairobi, Kenya and Adelaide, Australia.
"Our original plans were to come in the year 2000. But we were advised it wasn't safe," explained Singh alluding to the outbreak of the second Intifada.
Contrary to their expectations of violence and religious strife, Singh said, the group were overwhelmed with kindness everywhere they went. Their packed itinerary, which took them to Tabgha, Safed and Isfiya in the Galilee and Bethlehem and Tekoa in the West Bank, included meetings with former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, Rabbi Menachem Froman and Sheikh Abdul Salaam of Nazareth.
In Jerusalem, in an unusual gesture of spiritual good will, Sheikh Sidi Muhammad al-Jamal, secretary of the Sufi Council - who rarely grants interviews to non-Muslims - met with the delegation at his office on the Haram a-Sharif (Temple Mount) and insisted on personally serving tea to everyone, Singh recalled.
The group visited the al-Aqsa Mosque, which has been closed to non-Muslims for the last five years, and toured the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa and inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Speaking at a festive Punjabi banquet Sunday at the Kiryat Shmuel home of Jerusalem peace activist Eliyahu McLean, Bhai Sahiba Ji spoke of his being repeatedly overwhelmed with emotion and tears during the trip. There is only one universal God, he declared.
Then turning light-hearted, he said in this modern age we must communicate with one another using the Internet, and "the address is love dotcom."
Bhai Sahiba Ji, who is also known as Mohinder Singh, holds the honorific title "Keeper of the Golden Temple" - the Sikh shrine in Amritsar, India and is one of the central leaders of the religion today. A civil engineer by profession, he is the chairman of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha temple in Birmingham.
An outspoken proponent of inter-religious dialogue, Mohinder Singh is a member of the European Council of Religious Leaders and an advisor to the Sikh Heritage Trust.
Recalling one of the highlights of the pilgrimage, Bhai Sahiba Ji spoke at the farewell dinner of standing in the pouring rain at Jerusalem's Western Wall on the Sabbath eve, "being showered with God's blessings." The full-bearded Sikh men - dressed in traditional white robes and turbans - were surrounded by a fascinated crowd of Hassidim and Haredim with similarly untrimmed facial hair but wearing black. The two faith communities represent the yin and yang of common humanity and the oneness of the Divine, he said.
McLean, the director of Jerusalem Peacemakers, organized the pilgrimage together with a team of well-known figures in the holy city's interfaith and peace communities, including Rabbi David Rosen, Haj Ibrahim Abu al-Hawa and Dr. Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gotstein.
"I wouldn't want to be doing anything else," said McLean. "It's work that feeds my neshama (soul)."
The Peacemakers project also sponsors a program at Nazareth's Sufi Center where Jewish and Muslim high-school teachers study religious texts together.
Sikhism, which like Judaism encompasses both a religion and a people, is based on the 10 gurus or enlightened masters who lived in India in the 16th and 17th centuries. The relatively new religion promotes a life of virtuous action, hard work, and dedication to family and community.
Straightforward in its theology and open to the teachings of other faiths, it now ranks as the world's fifth-largest religion.
What of the future? Did the Sikh pilgrimage indeed advance the cause of Middle East peace?
"That's in God's hands," said Gurcharam Singh.