Participants gather at University of Haifa's first JCM Conference last week.
Participants gather at University of Haifa's first JCM Conference last week.Courtesy

The Haifa Laboratory for Religious Studies at the University of Haifa held its first international interfaith conference last week, hosting leading religious figures and academics from the world’s most prominent Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The conference was brought to Haifa in light of the groundbreaking Abraham Accords, which normalized Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco.

The JCM (Jews, Christians, Muslims) Conference brought over 50 academics together from Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, Turkey, Albania, Greece, England, Ireland, and Germany. It included key lectures from the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Jerusalem-based Director of International Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi David Rosen; Founder and Director of Rethinking Conflict and Methodist Minister, Rev. Dr. Gary Mason; and professor of Arabic literature, Kamal Abdel-Malek, as well as weekend workshop activities and discussions.

The Laboratory for Religious Studies houses a community of researchers, visiting professors, and students dedicated to the scholarly study of religions – with an emphasis on interfaith dialogue and interdisciplinary collaborations. The Laboratory’s mission is to facilitate a community of scholars whose interdisciplinary research promotes dialogue between religious leaderships and collaborations with local and international religious communities and institutions. The goal is for these ties to serve as a backbone for facilitating important conversations that impact our world.

For more than 40 years, the JCM Conference has gained a reputation across Europe for promoting dialogue, understanding, and solidarity among members of the three Abrahamic faiths. The mission of the conference was to highlight how religion can be a vehicle for social and civic changes; and rather than being the problem, offering solutions. As such, participants discussed how religion can and should be part of important conversations surrounding social justice, environmental sustainability, and gender equality.

Participants also discussed the possibility of launching an academic network that would connect like-minded scholars from the Middle East and the Mediterranean to discuss these very issues and connect with politicians and other figures of influence in their respective countries.

Dr. Uriel Simonsohn, Head of The Haifa Laboratory Haifa for Religious Studies (HLRS) and of the University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, said, “We live in a highly religious region, where religious leaders wield tremendous influence. We hope to leverage that influence to make them a force for social change in non-religious issues that affect daily lives for all. Members of the Abrahamic faiths share a belief in God and the commandments - this common denominator offers us a springboard to drive social change together.”

The initiative also hopes to influence countries that have not yet signed the Accords. To that end, the HLRS is well-connected with important political institutions and figures such as leading politicians in Bahrain; the President of Christian Leaders in the United States, Reverend Johnnie Moore; the office of Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan; Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian; Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif; head of the Druze community, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif; and Secretary General of the Baha'i community, David Rutstein.

Simonsohn added that he hopes this philosophy can be applied closer to home, adding, “We are in the process of harnessing political and religious leaders through the Palestinian territories in order to create an axis of cooperation to bring the vision of peace manifested in the Abraham Accords to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Haifa, we pride ourselves on fostering religious harmony on campus, and it is our hope that holding these kinds of discussions can be the anchor to creating a more sustainable life.”

Over the weekend, guests were treated to a tour of the religious diversity in Haifa where they saw the Baha'i grounds and experienced prayer ceremonies for all three religions. The next JCM conference is set to take place in Morocco next year. The conference in Haifa was held in partnership with the Ministry of Regional Cooperation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.