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Some religious leaders say they're struggling to navigate Israel-Hamas crisis


The Hamas attacks and Israel's retaliation have left many people at a loss for words. Others have said something publicly that they thought sounded well-meaning then experienced a backlash. NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose has this look at a fraught moment.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: The day after the initial Hamas attack, Tahil Sharma posted a meme on social media.

TAHIL SHARMA: Three children in the Holy Land - one Christian, one Muslim and one Jew - who are all standing together in front of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock mosque.

DEROSE: Sharma is from a Hindu and Sikh background and serves as an interfaith minister with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

SHARMA: I wanted to be very clear that, like, peace has to be the end goal of this conflict and what we're looking for.

DEROSE: But the response was not what he expected.

SHARMA: And I had a slew of people actually come in and say, you are misinterpreting or misunderstanding the circumstances of this conflict. You are trying to engage in "Kumbaya." The only way this is going to work is if this side wins.

DEROSE: Which left him at a loss, especially given his work as an interfaith minister.

SHARMA: It was the first time I felt paralysis. Trying to speak up for peace should not be the issue here, but somehow even mentioning the idea of peace was almost an erasure of suffering, which made me respond by going quiet.

PHOEBE MILLIKEN: It's really challenging to do this through social media just because social media is not set up for dialogue. It's not set up for listening and understanding, and so much gets lost.

DEROSE: Phoebe Milliken directs a graduate program at Hartford International University on building peace.

MILLIKEN: Public stuff is really hard because that's not about listening, is it? You know, it's about making some sort of a statement. And if how you show you support people is by, you know, showing that you're listening to them, you know, social media really undermines all of that.

DEROSE: It's a lesson Stephen Rohde has learned over many years, leading the organization Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. But the pressure to say something is real.

STEPHEN ROHDE: And it's in that space that I do struggle, and people will - considered me insufficiently outraged by what went on in Israel.

DEROSE: Rohde says that disappointment comes from not just his Jewish Israeli friends or his Muslim Palestinian friends, but from anyone who demands he choose a side.

ROHDE: They jump to conclusions that I am somehow excusing one side's atrocities by citing the other side's atrocities. And that's not what I'm doing, because we will get nowhere unless we engage with each other.

DEROSE: Engage not in arguments, say, about who has the greater religious claim to land, but instead, says Hartford's Phoebe Milliken, focus on common religious values, including care for neighbors and the most vulnerable.

MILLIKEN: Being able to sort of connect to those values is something that I think a lot of people see as a spiritual practice, as a Muslim or as a Jew or as a Christian or as a Buddhist. A value that they see in the religious other as well can help deepen these conversations and allow for these spaces where some of that vulnerability can be possible.

DEROSE: And when it comes to figuring out what to say, she suggests the less public approach.

MILLIKEN: Reach out one on one. Make the call or the text or the email to say, I'm thinking about you. How are you?

DEROSE: Then, Milliken says, be willing to listen.

Jason DeRose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.