Muslim, Christian from Wichita to march in Gaza together

Organizers of the upcoming Gaza Freedom March describe the event as a nonpartisan coalition of all faiths.

Wichitans Maher Musleh and the Rev. Michael Poage said they think they fit that description perfectly.

"We have built a really wonderful relationship between a Muslim and a Christian," Musleh said. "It's a very strong humanitarian friendship."

Musleh, director of the Wichita chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Poage, pastor of Fairmount United Church of Christ, plan to march through Gaza next week. The two have been friends for more than five years through work with Inter-Faith Ministries, Global Learning Center and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Poage said.

The march was organized to mark the first anniversary of Israeli attacks in Gaza against Hamas, the political party that took control of Gaza in 2007, and to urge Israeli and Egyptian leaders to lift the siege on the territory.

Poage said about 1,500 people from 40 countries are expected to join 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza for Thursday's march.

Musleh and Poage are expected to leave for Cairo, Egypt, today, where they will meet with other delegates, before traveling to the Rafah border crossing, near southern Gaza.

Musleh said there is a 70 percent chance the marchers will be turned away at the border. If they are not allowed to enter Gaza the delegates will camp in tents at the border and give money to people who can buy and smuggle humanitarian supplies into Gaza, Poage said.

If Egyptian authorities allow the marchers into Gaza, they will spend several days in the territory before the march, which starts in the areas destroyed in last year's attacks and end at the northern Israel-Gaza border.

Moti Rieber, executive director of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, said marchers should

focus on ending Hamas' use of rockets and mortars against Israeli civilians north of the border.

"Well-meaning people who are concerned with the well-being of the people of Gaza would be better off asking Hamas to stop using Gaza as a weapon in its war against Israel and join the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," Rieber said.

Poage said he thinks the people of Gaza, who are mostly refugees, should not be punished by Israeli forces for the violent actions of small factions of Hamas party members.

"Nobody should be firing rockets at anybody," he said.

After the march, Musleh and Poage hope to travel through Israel and Jordan to meet people and visit religious sites. They also plan to visit Musleh's home in the West Bank.

"Sites are great, but what I really want to do is talk to people," Poage said. "In the Middle East there are not two sides. There are more like a dozen or 25 sides to every issue, and I want to try to get an understanding and issues and the viewpoints."

Musleh said he is excited to show Poage, who has never been to the Middle East, the area they both consider holy land.

"To a Muslim and a Christian," he said, "what it does, when you visit these sites, is it builds better relationships and better understanding."