More than 500 women representing 33 different nations were greeted with smiles as they marched from Rehov Ben-Hillel to Independence Park last Thursday afternoon, singing and waving their respective national flags in an effort to bring a message of peace to Muslim and Jewish residents of the capital.
By the time the entourage, dubbed "A Mother's Heart for Peace " reached its final destination, its conciliatory spirit had dissipated. The Christian group, hailing primarily from Japan, Korea, and the United States, were met by about 100 Palestinians who had been bussed to Independence Park from east Jerusalem and Arab villages north of Haifa by the event's organizer, the Women's Federation for World Peace (WFWP).
Dr. Moshe Nahum, president of the World Yemenite Federation and ambassador for the festival's umbrella organization, the Inter-religious International Federation for World Peace (IIFWP), was puzzled by the low turn-out of Jewish Israelis.
"The only ones here who are from the region are Muslim," he said as he glanced around the park in dismay at a group of Muslim children playing with plastic machine guns, which they directed at the Israeli policemen who came to secure the festival.
"Jews have nothing to do with this event," commented David Cohen, one of the few Jewish Jerusalemites in attendance, who said he only came in order to stay informed about happenings in the city. "I don't trust that the people who organized this event came to make peace."
Rachel Gal, a Jewish volunteer with the WFWP in Jerusalem for the last five years, contested that the WFWP expected more Jewish women to come.
"I suppose Jewish Israelis were just too afraid to come," she said.
An alternative explanation for the low turn-out is the infamous reputation of IIFWP founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon, whose Church of Unification was mentioned 17 years ago in the ranks of the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement in a report by the Tassa-Glazer Knesset Commission, which was appointed by the Israeli government to investigate the dangers and damage caused by cults in Israel.
"These people don't have a peace plan. They have a theological agenda," said Aaron Rubin, director of the Anti-Missionary Department of Jerusalem-based organization Yad L'ahim (Hands to our Brothers), which offers help to Jews who have been persuaded to join cults and missionary movements.
According to Rubin, Moon's Church of Unification is currently undergoing its fourth incarnation as an occult under the leadership of Rev. Moon and his wife, who also serves as head of the WFWP. The current objective of the church, he said, is to create the Fourth Israel. The church's view holds that the First Israel was besmirched by the murder of Jesus by the Jews, the second was destroyed because Christians refused to recognize Rev. Moon as the messiah, and in the Third Israel, Christians denied that Rev. Moon represented the Second Coming.
"Moon's followers call him The Lord of the Second Advent " said Rubin and revealed that the Fourth Israel aims to include Jewish, Muslim, and Christian followers in a joint chosen nation under the true leadership of Moon and his wife.
"The goal is to bring people of all faiths into his service," said Rubin. "The problem is that most followers don't understand the real agenda."
Karen Smith, an Inter-religious International Peace Council (IIPC) representative from New York, denied that Moon has a hidden agenda and claimed that everyone affiliated with his movement sees him differently.
"The objective of the Church of Unification is not at all conversion," said Smith. "Some see him as a prophet or in a messianic role and others see him just as a smart man... Most people do respect him for what he has achieved by encouraging people to go beyond the boundaries of religion and nationality and see themselves as human beings who, if given the chance to work out our differences, can discover a genuine respect for each other.
"The church encourages followers of all religions to live up to the highest standards of their own tradition," she continued. "That's when we will all be making progress towards peace."
Festival participant Wendy Forster of Colorado agreed.
"Many people of diverse faiths are very happy to work with him and honor his gift at peacemaking."
Haitham Bundakji, president of the Masjid Board of the Islamic Society of Orange County (ISOC), an organization affiliated with the IIFWP, testified to that fact.
"I have been working with the IIFWP since 1996 and no one has ever asked us to convert or to leave our beliefs," said Bundakji, adding that it would be unreasonable for a Muslim with more than 1.4 billion followers worldwide to consider converting to Unificationism.
"Why would I leave that and belong to a cult if it was a cult? Rev. Moon has been under so much criticism because he is doing something good, and usually when people do something good, they are criticized by the enemies of peace and the enemies of goodness.
"The credibility of this movement is what really stands out to me. In America, the church is well respected and it is gaining respect all over the world."
According to Rubin, Moon's primary goal is to establish public legitimacy.
"Their tactic is different from most cults, since they don't try to convert people directly, but instead try to gain legitimacy through different public conferences and festivals," explained Rubin.
Another tactic, claimed Rubin, is encouraging the creation of advocacy groups which work on behalf of Moon, but which maintain their legitimacy by remaining officially autonomous.
Rubin gave as an example three rabbis who last year were invited to attend an IIPC-sponsored seminar in Jerusalem where they were lectured about peace for several hours before being asked to sign a symbolic treaty of solidarity in English. The treaty, said Rubin, which one of the rabbis couldn't read, declared that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and that the signers vowed to encourage their congregants to repent for that sin.
"They are very deceptive people," said Rubin, and estimated that there are over 50,000 international ambassadors for peace who are working under the indirect auspices of the IIFWP.
In addition to the IIFWP's substantial following, the IIPC has formed a lobby group to encourage the United Nations to institute an inter-religious council.
"We recommend that the UN form an ad hoc committee to consider including an inter-religious council in the UN so that the religious voice can contribute to the peace-building work that is so desperately needed," explained Smith.
The draft resolution submitted by the IIPC in the Philippines is currently on the table, but no decision has been reached. Until then, the IIFWP and its affiliate organizations will continue promoting their ideology through international peace festivals, seminars, and conferences. (A Mother's Heart for Peace was among six IIFWP-sponsored events that have taken place in Israel over the last year alone.)
Forster said they have all been legitimate, peaceful gatherings.
"All we are hoping to do is make a statement in favor of reconciliation in this region," she insisted. "As women, we feel that we have a skill that is not being utilized on the level of negotiation between governments. We have developed skills working with children and one of those is the knowledge that you can't favor anyone when your own children are fighting with each other."
"We have been transformed by meeting both Arab and Israeli women who have suffered," added Susan Fefferman from Maryland, who helped to coordinate the festival. "We don't have any answers, but we are willing to help and serve and listen, and that in itself is a step that can heal."
Manan Aswanha, 25, a Muslim participant from Nazareth, agreed.
"It's a lovely idea to come for a peace day. I think it's what we need," said the schoolteacher and mother of two. "I don't know if efforts like this actually help the situation, but it helps me for my own personal psychology. It is nice to come to a place where you can see that there are good people who also want to make peace."
For Moshe Fass, who had recently entered his retirement, the effort was at best naive.
"They talk about suffering, and peace, and understanding. I don't know if they actually know what these things mean," he said. "There is no genuine feeling of conciliation at this festival, which for all its nice words has nothing to do with reality."