A prominent American-Muslim cleric is calling for the institution of a "sacred month" during which Muslims, Jews and Christians cease all hostilities and pilgrim to Israel.
In an exclusive interview with Anglo File in Jerusalem this week, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf - known for his controversial plan to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York - said the idea takes its cue from the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca.
"During the annual pilgrimage to Mecca - the hajj - the Arabs always used to be hostile towards each other," said the Kuwaiti-born cleric, listed by Time Magazine in 2011 as one of the "most influential people in the world."
"During the time of pilgrimage there were three sacred months during which all hostilities stopped," he said. "This allowed the pilgrims to travel safely. It would also allow trade to occur and for people to get together in a good way," he said.
Rauf, 62, called this week on religious leaders to "bring this idea back."
"I'd like us religious leaders to call for a sacred month that that will allow people to go on pilgrimage," he said. If Muslims - including Iranians, who are often keen pilgrims - "felt free to come here for part of their pilgrimage, you would have easily tens of millions of people coming to Jerusalem," Rauf said.
Rauf suggests that such a move "would be one step that would perhaps open the door" to reconciliation and peace.
"The pilgrimage to Mecca has always been an occasion for Muslims to get to know Muslims from other parts of the world," Rauf noted. "If Muslims could come here, you could create some activity on the sidelines between Muslims and Jews."
The chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an organization dedicated to improving interfaith relations, Rauf is not without controversy. His plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the former site of the World Trade Center - often called the "Ground Zero Mosque" - faced severe criticism. Pundits attacked him for accusing the United States of being an "accessory" to 9/11 and alleged secret sympathies for Hamas.
But this week, Rauf emphatically condemned religious radicalism. "We have to strengthen the voice of the moderates," he said. "The problem is the moderates are not media attractive. Breaking news is always the actions of the extremists."
"This is where we moderates are on the defense," Rauf said. "Yes, the extremists are winning the game, but I believe they are winning more in the perception than in the reality."
The real battlefront, he said, is not between Muslims and Jews, but between moderates and extremists.
Rauf, who is in Israel for a conference of the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute, visited holy sites revered by both Islam and Judaism during a tour led this week by U.S.-born Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, head of the institute. On Monday the two prayed at the Tomb of Samuel, also known as Nebi Samwil, which houses both a mosque and synagogue.
"When we came out, I said, 'This is really beautiful; here we are praying together as Jews and Muslims,'" said Goshen-Gottstein. "Feisal said, 'Yes Alon, but we also have to go beyond these labels: Jews, Christians and Muslims. There is also a place we meet beyond that."
After their visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Jews and Muslims are kept separate, Goshen-Gottstein lamented, "The sad truth is that in many of these places, we of different religions don't think about the other."
"The point of purposeful pilgrimage," he explained, "is that even if we carry out pilgrimage in different ways - I go into my space and you go into yours - I maintain you in my awareness. I include you in my prayers and you include me in yours."
Rauf insists that even in turbulent times, peace still remains an achievable goal. "Time creates irreversible change," he said. As people become more multicultural, "the world is moving towards a unity." If 50 years after World War II the world can have a united Europe, the same can happen in the Middle East, he said. "If there were peace in this region, within a generation all the countries in the Middle East would have a common market, possibly a common currency."
While many worry about Israel's security in the wake of the Arab Spring, Rauf senses it could spark the end of the Arab-Israel conflict. "Perhaps we [moderates] can begin something that would have the elements of a peace movement that would ... force political leaders to actually consider a shift in their policies," he said.
Quoting a passage from the Koran passage in which Jews are described as the chosen people, Rauf maintains that Israel has a special duty to bring peace to the world.
"Part of the responsibility and the burden of the Jewish State of Israel is to really reach into its deepest identity as Jews," he said. "The little Yiddish that I learned is 'Zei a yid' ['Be a Jew']. It means be a mensch, be a real human being in the highest sense of the word. If I could say one thing to the Israeli leadership it would be: 'Zei a Yid.' If Israel can express the highest standards of what it means to be a Jew, it will win the respect of the whole Muslim world."
Rauf added that Israel must express its Jewish identity "not from a demographic sense, but from what being a Jew really means - to be the chosen people of God."
"In this small piece of land, God wants us to make it," Rauf said. "If we can figure it out here, it will have an impact globally."