The head of the Sharia Court in Jerusalem says he is motivated by the Koran to engage in interfaith dialogue.
“The Koran orders the Muslims to come to dialogue with all the people of the holy books — the Christians and the Jews,” said Kadi Iyad Zahalka. (The Arabic word for an Islamic judge is kadi.)
“Also, God orders us to make this dialogue in wise ways and peaceful ways. The Koran said we must do this dialogue in good words and good speech.”
Zahalka was speaking to a room of Muslims, Jews and Christians who gathered Oct. 7 at the Jewish Community Services Building to hear him and Rabbi Ron Kronish, the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, discuss why they talk to one another.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia sponsored the event, which was part of the religious leaders’ speaking tour around the United States.
The two also appeared at Gladwyne Presbyterian Church.
Kronish said such dialogue contributes to “the other peace process.”
While Kronish lauded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts in bringing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators together to resume peace talks, the rabbi and the kadi both said that dialogue on a person-to-person level is equally important to achieving long-term peace.
Zahalka, who was born in a village near Haifa, heads the Jerusalem court that rules on personal matters concerning the Muslim citizens of Israel. He said the majority of Muslims around the world share his interpretation of the Koran — that they should meet people of other faiths in a peaceful manner — but that the “small minority of Muslims who are fundamentalist” skew the world’s view of Islam.
“The peaceful voices are talking at a low volume,” said Zahalka. He added that he thinks the media pays too much attention to the radical elements of Islam and that his efforts at interfaith dialogue allow people to get a more accurate view of his religion.
“We are meeting. We are talking, and this way we can express the idea that Muslims have humanistic values and that we can together join forces against the challenges that we have in modern times.”
Kronish, a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the key to reaching greater understanding among different peoples is spending significant time together. Often, he said, the breakthroughs happen at casual meals rather than formal events.
He recalled an interfaith retreat with seven Jewish and seven Muslim clergy held in 2003 in Belfast — the venue chosen because of Ireland’s history of conflict. The participants broke down barriers while “eating together, sitting on the bus together, schmoozing together.”
Afterwards, when the brother of one of the Muslim leaders died, Kronish and a number of Orthodox rabbis went to his house in an Arab village in Israel to make a condolence call.
“Real relationships formed from that event — for many years, still to this day,” Kronish said.
Zahalka recalled how a few years ago his 15-year-old daughter, who had been very shy, participated in the Children Teaching Children program in Israel, in which Arab and Jewish children meet twice a month and “talk about their culture, their religion, their village, their family.”
“After two or three months of this program, my daughter changed. She was open. She always speaks. I said to her, ‘What happened with you?’ She started to talk with people,” Zahalka said. “It is very exciting. I think it is one of the ways we can achieve understanding between us.”