Participants of Israel-Palestine interfaith initiative reunite after 20 years

Participants of Israel-Palestine interfaith initiative reunite after 20 years

Group of original 24 Jewish, Muslim and Christian participants come together at East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue two decades after the 'Encounter Youth Exchange' project

Then and now: The interfaith group come together 20 years apart.
Then and now: The interfaith group come together 20 years apart.

Participants who took part in a “ground-breaking” 1999 interfaith exchange project between British, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers have met in London for an emotional 20-year reunion.

Now in their late 30s, many of the original group of 24 Jews, Christians and Muslims met at the East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue on Sunday to “demonstrate that friendship and mutual understanding transcends religious differences”.

The ten-day ‘Encounter Youth Exchange’ project in 1999 was pioneering and included 36 hours in the Negev desert, as well as visits to places of worship and sites of historical significance across the Holy Land for the three faiths.

It culminated at the Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam Peace Village. A year later, in 2000, the participants repeated a second ‘leg’ of the project, in East London.

This Sunday the exchange coordinators – many now retired – recalled their aim of promoting a better understanding of, and reconciliation between, Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Participants who now live as far away as China joined in via Skype, and the group celebrated how the exchange’s Muslim and Christian youth leaders – Sofia Choudhary and Chris Wright, who met on the project – ended up getting married.

Encounter Youth Exchange group in 1999

All agreed that it was the only project of its kind, then and since, and Dan Ozarow, a Jewish participant, recalled how the project took place at a time of “enormous hope” for the peace process, shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed.

“During those beautiful times, we all learned just how much we had in common, both as teenagers with similar interests and dreams, and also in terms of our how similar the values and precepts of our respective faiths were,” he said.

“These were experiences that changed our outlooks and our lives forever. It was magical to meet again, share memories and rekindle our friendships. We have proven that we have so much more in common than what our differences are.”

Some of the Encounter Youth Exchange group back together in 2019

Anne Davison, project coordinator said: “When planning this project, I was asked ‘why bother, what difference will it make?’ The answer is here, 20 years on, with so many of the original group travelling miles to meet again. I feel proud that our small drop in the ocean has not been lost, but is still swimming strongly against the tide.”

Sam Tarry, a Christian participant hoping to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the Ilford South, said growing up in Ilford meant that it was “hard not to have friends from many different faiths and backgrounds”.

He added: “What was so powerful about this project was to take the hope of a diverse and tolerant community, and to learn together and understand one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.

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