Muslim families sue Israel for right to bury their dead at a Jerusalem cemetery

This story was first published at Religion Unplugged:

JERUSALEM – Just south of the Old City’s monumental Lion’s Gate lies a smaller portal. White double doors framed by Arabic engraved tablets open to reveal a stone path shaded by a sheet metal awning. Where the overhang ends, the graves begin, hundreds of them overlooking the Mount of Olives, its green slopes dotted with graves of their own. As the sun sets, light slants against the long, flat gravestones. Farther down the path, red poppies grow between the headstones. Two young men in kufis stand by one of the graves, deep in prayer. At dusk, the living, a few solitary visitors, were as silent as the dead, meandering quietly among them.

Photo by Sara Weissman

PIn the hush of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, it’s hard to imagine the place as anything but peaceful. For hundreds of years, people of faith have been buried just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. But beneath this burial ground, running along the eastern wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Temple Mount, lie layers of religious meaning and conflict. For Palestinians, it’s an active Muslim cemetery. For Israel, it’s a protected Jewish antiquities site. Burials there have been a point of contention in Jerusalem for over a decade.

Residents
of Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood bordering the Old City, traditionally
bury their dead in the southernmost part of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery. But for
years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has technically banned burials in
the area, citing the need to protect antiquities close to the Temple Mount. Palestinian
families who consider themselves the land’s owners are pursuing a lawsuit
against the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the municipality of Jerusalem,
with their next hearing this summer. The hope is, if the Husseini and Ansari
families can reassert ownership, they can reduce Israeli interference at the
cemetery.

“In June, I hope that the court will be open to hearing our arguments and be convinced,” said Sami Harshid, a lawyer who’s been representing families in Silwan for 20 years. “Restricting people and using their burial places is equal [to] restricting any community conducting worship.”

Bab
al-Rahma Cemetery has already undergone its share of legal battles. In 1974,
the Israel Nature and Parks Authority classified it as a part of the Jerusalem
Walls National Park, giving the agency authority over the grounds. At the time,
the land was registered under the Islamic Waqf. In 2005, the Committee for the
Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount – a group of
Israeli archeologists and scholars – petitioned the High Court to ban burials
in the area, citing the area’s potential archeological significance. According
to Haaretz,
their statement called burials in the area “archeological crimes, which are
unacceptable to any cultured person, irrespective of political stands or
ideological positions,” comparing the Temple Mount to the Acropolis in Athens.

The
court ultimately rejected the suit but encouraged authorities to protect the
site, causing police to restrict new burials in the southern part of the
cemetery. In 2012, the area where the burial ban was enforced expanded.
Finally, last May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority completed a fence
around the cemetery, a decision met with protest from Palestinians. Silwan
residents saw it as another move to restrict Palestinian burials, part of a systemic
policy to curtail their rights and erode their cultural landmarks from the
landscape of Jerusalem.

“[People]
are very frustrated,” Harshid said. “They feel like the authorities ignore not
just their feelings but the real need to have burial space there.”

Photo by Sara Weissman

PJerusalem, in general, has a burial space problem. Centuries of funerals for the world’s faithful have finally taken their toll. As Jerusalem’s Jewish cemeteries fill, its burial society has resorted to some odd, albeit creative plans: burial complexes with multiple stories, graves carved into rock walls, and even catacombs. Muslims are also suffering from the lack of burial space, and people who live in Silwan specifically want to bury loved ones in Bab al-Rahma, both because of family plots there and because of the religious significance of the area.

When her uncle died, Sahar Abasi’s family buried him in her grandfather’s grave in Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, in accordance with a Muslim tradition to have layered burials. It was emotional laying a son to rest with his father. As her own father grows old, she can’t imagine burying him anywhere else. Abasi, the women project coordinator for the Madaa Silwan Creative Center, describes Silwan as the “core” of her life. She’s lived in the neighborhood since she was born.

“Everyone
has a last wish, and this is the last wish for everyone here – to be buried in
Bab al-Rahma,” she said.

To
be Palestinian on the outskirts of the Old City is to constantly reassert, “We
exist, we have roots, we have heritage…” Abasi said. Living – and dying – in
Silwan isn’t “heaven on earth… Now after their death days, [Palestinians]
deserve their rest, what they didn’t have in their lives.”

She
thinks Israel is slowly edging out Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The legal wrangling
over Bab al-Rahma Cemetery is just a part of it. “[Israel figured], ‘We’ll
start with the living, and now we’ll start with the dead people,’” Abasi said.

According
to Harshid, Bab al-Rahma Cemetery has a sort of patchwork of regulations now.
Small areas of the cemetery complex allow for unrestricted burials, while
others don’t allow for new burials at all.

In
the Southern part, Silwan residents can apply for court permission, but
“Palestinians don’t really trust the Israeli court system,” said Yonathan
Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist in Jerusalem. Even though police can stop
burials, he finds that most mourners would rather take their chances.

Mizrachi
works with Silwan residents as the executive director of Emek Shaveh, an
Israeli NGO that focuses on the role of archeology in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. The organization often advocates for Palestinians impacted by Israeli
excavations.

For
Mizrachi, the archeological claims aren’t enough to ban burials. This is a case
where archeology is a “tool to change the character of the village, to create
kind of a new political order in this area,” he said. In Israel, “Every stone
becomes relevant and raises a lot of tension.”

Mizrachi
understands the desire to preserve Jerusalem as it once was. But this
preservationist ideology is applied selectively, he said. No one is arguing
Jews should stop performing burials in Jerusalem to protect potential
antiquities. The argument against burials isn’t just about artifacts. It’s
about the culture of the city.

“What
kind of city do we see when we visit Jerusalem?” he asked. “Do we see a
multicultural city? Do we see an Arab city? Do we see an Israeli Jewish city?
This cemetery reminds us we’re not the only people here.”

Mizrachi
is drawn to the conflict around Bab al-Rahma Cemetery in particular because
it’s “an interesting case of violating heritage rights in the name of
protection for heritage,” he said.

Mizrachi
doesn’t reject the idea that Bab al-Rahma cemetery has archeological
significance, given its location. But Mizrachi argues that civilizations have
been building on top of each other for centuries. Jerusalem is a growing city.
People live and people die. Some of them are Muslim.

“We have a history of layers,” he said. “The cemetery is part of it.”

Top photo by Sara Weissman


Day #4, Part I: West Bank

RAMALLAH AND TAYBEH –

“What’s the most common thing in journalism?” our professor Greg Khalil asked.

It was a little after 7:30 a.m., and for a moment, the group was quiet – groggily awaiting the energy promised by cups of coffee we downed minutes ago at our hotel in Tiberius.

“Plans falling through,” Leah Feiger called out.

“Exactly.”

Khalil announced that we had to cancel our plans for the first half of the day: our trip to Nablus to see Jacob’s Well, our stop at Mt. Gerizim and Beit Filasteen, a tour of the Kasbah, our meeting with Munib Masri, and a lunch conversation with the Samaritans.

(Zahi Khouri, photo by Natacha Larnaud)

 

The reason for our spontaneous shift was instability in the region. This Sunday, two Israelis were killed and one injured at Ariel Junction, a transportation hub for Ariel, a West Bank settlement. The suspect, 20-year-old Omar Abu Lila, had remained at large until he was killed by Israeli soldiers—along with two other Palestinians in the area.

Khalil made some quick calls, and soon we had a new plan for the morning: a trip to Ramallah, a bustling Palestinian city in the central West Bank, and a stop in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian town left in the Holy Land.

We sped between lush green plains, the white minarets of Palestinian village mosques rising in the background. Vehicles with green and white license plates, Palestinian cars, zipped past us on a parallel highway. Our road allowed Israeli cars only.

When we reached the checkpoint going into Ramallah, traffic snarled around a roundabout bloated with cars, Arabic ads for clothing stores and apartment buildings plastered on a wall by the roadside. Yasser Arafat, former president of the Palestinian Authority, and Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader imprisoned for killing Israelis, stared out at us, their faces spray-painted on the cement barrier separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Khalil pointed out Qalandiya Refugee Camp on our right.

After the slow crawl of traffic through shop-laden streets, we found ourselves outside a shiny, red building emblazoned with a familiar insignia – Coca-Cola. In a bright conference room, we met Palestinian entrepreneur Zahi Khouri, founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company, which has a license for the Coca-Cola franchise. Khouri described fleeing his home as a 10 year old in 1948 and shared his experience building his business in the Palestinian territories.

Khouri has strong religious roots in the region. His great grandfather headed the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem before moving to Jaffa, where Khouri was eventually born.

He doesn’t think religion is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – though he does see a “Judeo-Christian struggle,” a tension between churches and the Israeli government over taxes and land acquisition. But before the state of Israel, Jews and Arabs in Palestine had “enormous common interest, common culture,” he said.

Khouri has taken part in multiple interfaith initiatives with other entrepreneurs, like “Break the Impasse,” with mixed results.

“It ended up going nowhere because, frankly, I felt the Israelis didn’t have the guts to push their leaders toward a two-state [solution],” he said.

For Khouri, bringing the National Beverage Company to Palestine wasn’t just a business venture. It was an attempt to uplift his community.

“I thought, ‘I have to open a business that puts Palestine on the map,’” he said.

Now the National Beverage Company employs about 900 people in total. It’s the largest employer in Gaza, since it opened a branch there four years ago, he said.

It’s important to him to keep young, educated Palestinians in the region.

“I consider brain drain our biggest problem, not occupation,” he said.

(The Coca Cola headquarters. Photo courtesy of Sara Weissman.)

Back on the bus, we headed toward Taybeh, famously Jesus’s last stop before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. But again, we had to change our plans. Outside the checkpoint we intended to pass through to leave Ramallah, people were gathering. One woman in a blue hijab carried a tire. A Palestinian flag waved atop a cement pillar across the street. It was clear there would soon be a protest there. Our bus driver turned around and found another route out of the city.

After passing several church steeples, we dismounted the bus and found a steaming lunch spread waiting for us at Taybeh Golden Hotel. There, Dr. Maria Khoury – who manages public relations for the hotel, Taybeh winery, and Taybeh beer – greeted us warmly with shot glasses of local Palestinian wine.

Khoury talked to us as we helped ourselves to Palestinian classics like maqluba, a fried vegetable and rice dish, and mujaddara, spiced lentils.

She told us Taybeh existed 3,000 years before Jesus was born, and the name of the village “Taybeh” means “good” or “delicious” in Arabic. She and her husband decided his hometown was the perfect name for their family-owned winery and microbrewery.

Like Zahi Khouri, she hopes her businesses will bring commerce to the area. In 2005, 50 percent of the town was unemployed, she said. But Taybeh Beer’s annual Oktober Fest event draws people to the village and encourages them to buy local products like honeys and soaps.

Khouri also hopes to show people the beauty of “the last little Christian stronghold.”

“It’s not all bloodshed and violence like my friends see on TV,” she said. “We’re a peaceful village here.”

Born Greek Orthodox, Khoury feels blessed to live in Taybeh.

“I live here by the grace of God,” she said.

Toward evening, we arrived in Bethlehem.

(Top image: Near Qalandia checkpoint. Courtesy of Sara Weissman.)


For Shia Muslims, a special place for Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad

It’s noon on a Friday. Dozens of men in baseball caps and kufis overflow from the men’s section into the main hall of the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, slowly settling into rows. Behind a curtain, nine women sit on the floor, scattered throughout the expansive women’s section.

 

Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, strides up to a dark wood podium. He looks the part with his clipped graying beard and scholarly glasses. He wears a white turban and a brown flowing robe.

 

“There are a lot of [theories] about the martyrdom, the death, of Sayyeda Fatima Zahra…” Al-Sahlani begins. He speaks a halting but florid English, his Iraqi accent carried by the microphone.

 

He refers to Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, as “sayyeda,” leader, and “zahra,” lady of light. Fatima is a celebrated figure in Shia Islam as both Muhammad’s daughter and the wife of Ali, the first Shia imam.

 

While mosque-goers gather weekly for a sermon and Friday prayers at Al-Khoei – on the corner of the Van Wyck Expressway and 89th Avenue – today is special. It’s the 20th day of the Islamic month of Jumada al-Awwal, one of the three times a year Shias commemorate Fatima’s death in 632 C.E.

 

“You cannot ignore your history,” Al-Sahlani continues. “You have to study the life of Sayyeda Zahra to find out which is the right road to be followed and where is the wrong road to be followed.” He gesticulates with his right hand for emphasis, his left gripping the podium.

 

As the imam speaks, a stream of girls filter into the women’s section in navy blue dresses and light blue hijabs, students from the Al-Iman School next door. Their clothes match but with their own individual touches – different waistlines, pockets, and pleats. Some wear their hijabs like a kerchief, others wrapped like a headscarf. Small children peek glances at the older women. Teens whisper to each other as school staff in stickered nametags guide students into neat rows.

 

Al-Sahlani continues, describing Fatima as a fighter for justice and “the connector” between four major leaders in Islam: Muhammad, Ali, and her sons Hassan and Hussein. He emphasizes her role as a loving daughter, citing one of her reverential titles “umme abiha” or “mother of her father” because she was said to treat her father with a maternal level of kindness.

 

Kids “in this society” are often more rebellious than Fatima, the imam says. And once they become adults, you can’t try to change them.

 

“The tree when it’s raised straight, and you take care for it, it will remain straight,” he says. “But if you leave it for the wind, then it will be curved, and this curve will continue for the rest of their life.”

 

That’s why religious education is so important to him. “When we teach our children, when we teach our daughters,” Fatima should be upheld as a model, he says. “Hopefully they will follow half of what Sayyeda Zahra taught us.”

 

The girls watch Al-Sahlani on a wide-screen TV from the women’s section. The little ones fidget with their scarves. Some of the older girls chatter and giggle softly, gently quieted by teachers who don’t look much older. If they’re aware the imam is talking about them – daughters – they don’t show it.

 

Al-Sahlani goes on to praise the marriage of Fatima and Ali, citing a passage from Bihar al-anwar, an 11th century collection of Shia teachings and stories. According to the text, Ali said he never made Fatima angry, he never forced her to do anything she didn’t want to do, she never upset or disobeyed him, and when Ali looked at her, “all my sadness, all my problems… disappear.”

 

There’s a pause, then a wave of murmurs like leaves rustling. One voice rises, then another and another. The congregation is punctuating Al-Sahlani’s sentence with salawat, a phrase Shias say when they hear the names of the prophet and his family members.

 

“Allāhumm-a Ṣall-i 'Alā Muḥammad-in Wa Al-i Muḥammad.”

 

“Oh Allah, may you grant peace and honor on Muhammad and his family.”

 

Al-Sahlani chuckles. He didn’t pause for people to say salawat, he says. He was just struck by the quote. Who sees his wife and forgets his problems?

 

The men laugh. A couple women smile. The kids continue to look preoccupied.

 

“I don’t know why people [are] laughing,” Al-Sahlani says with the grin of a man who just made a dad joke.

 

In a more serious tone, the imam encourages couples to emulate Ali and Fatima’s partnership, and soon after, the sermon slips seamlessly into Friday prayers. On the women’s side, teachers drop multi-colored rosaries into children’s outstretched hands. They bow together as the prayer leader’s voice rises and falls.

 

As soon as they’re finished praying, teachers usher the girls out of the room and back to school. There’s an announcement in the background. That night and the next, there would be more programming to commemorate Fatima, and the following weekend, a forum on domestic violence.

 


For the devout Shia Muslim, Thursday night is also a time for prayer

On a recent Thursday just after nightfall in New York’s borough of Queens,  cars whoosh by on the Van Wyck Expressway, faintly honking in the distance. But inside the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, the day is hardly over – even though mosque-goers have already finished the last of their five daily prayers.

 

On Thursdays, Shia Muslims traditionally recite Dua Kumayl, an extra prayer they attribute to Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the first Shia imam. It’s not obligatory; just a highly-respected custom.  One place where it is taken seriously is  at Al-Khoei at the corner of Van Wyck Express Way and 89th Avenue.

 

In the curtained-off women’s section, a community member, Zehra Zaida, finishes her final prostration, her forehead resting for a moment on her turbah, a traditional clay tablet, before she rises. She finds a spot against the wall of the women’s section and sits down on the plush Persian carpeting, a slim Arabic book in her lap. Her daughter sits next to her and fills in a bubble chart with names of the prophet’s family. Her son holds a book of his own, though he’s hardly old enough to read it.

 

On a large, flat-screen TV, Zaida can watch the prayer leader sitting on the floor of the men’s section just behind the gold curtain, a microphone angled toward him. His voice rises mournfully in a minor key:

 

“Bis-millahir-rahmanir-rahim…”

 

“In the name of Allah, the all-merciful, the all-compassionate…”

 

The other worshippers read the words quietly to themselves from their books and iPhones.

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which draw down adversities.”

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which alter blessings.”

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which hold back supplication…”

 

As the singsong notes waft over the divide, the tone of the room shifts. An older woman in a checkered headscarf, a tissue balled up in her right hand, seems to hold back tears.  Zaida’s wide brown eyes are serious, her long black hijab draped around her. She also sniffles quietly.

 

“Oh Allah, I find no forgiver of my sins, nor concealer of my ugly acts, nor transformer of any of my ugly acts into good acts but you,” the prayer leader continues.

 

“There is no God but you.”

 

The prayer goes on to appeal to God’s mercy. It asks God to forgive the reader for “every sin I have committed and to every mistake I have made,” to enable humility and gratitude. It begs God to come close, to build a relationship with the reader despite her human frailties.

 

“Some part of it makes us scared of our sin,” Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, explained later that night. “Some part of it gives us [a] kind of hope [in] the mercy of God.”

 

Dua Kumayl also poses an argument to God, Al-Sahlani said. “If Your mercy is everywhere, where will You put me to punish me?” The prayer reminds people to do better, but also reminds God that punishment is against the divine nature, he said. Dua Kumayl ultimately “gives a hope and also gives a precaution.”

 

According to Shia tradition, Imam Ali imparted the prayer to his companion Kumayl Ibn Ziyad Nakha'i, who memorized it and shared it with others in the seventh century.  Eventually, it was written down and named for Ali’s friend. While Shias can recite Dua Kumayl anytime, it’s customarily said on Thursdays, the eve before Jummah or Friday prayers. It’s also recited on the 15th day of Sha’ban, a holiday in the lunar month before Ramadan. Traditionally an auspicious day for God’s forgiveness, Shia communities spend the entire evening in prayer.

 

Zaida has been reciting Dua Kumayl every Thursday night since she was a kid. Now she brings her own children to the mosque to hear it. It’s a commitment. The prayer generally takes up to 30 minutes to read. There are only five other women there, compared to the 20 or so men who also braved the below-zero cold that evening. But it helps her to introspect and set her intentions for the week.

 

“We try our best to do all the good deeds, but still, we are human,” she said. “We do so many sins and mistakes… Every Thursday, it’s a reminder for us that we have to [stay] away from the bad deeds and stay on the right path. It’s constantly asking for forgiveness.”

 

The imam’s voice rises and falls, and Zaida continues to murmur. She occasionally leans toward her son to playfully bump foreheads, breaking the night’s somber tone if just for a moment.

 

Twice, the room joins together in a refrain set to a simple tune that sounds like a sigh.

 

“Ya rab-bi ya rab-bi ya rabb.”

 

“Oh lord, oh lord, oh lord.”

 

It’s 9 p.m. Zaida has been at the mosque since nearly 7:30. After a few more interludes of private prayer with the imam’s voice alone in the background, the congregation  joins together for the final words of Dua Kumayl.

 

“Bless Muhammad and Muhammad's household, and do with me what is worthy of You.”

 

“And Allah bless His messenger and the holy Imams of his household, and give them abundant peace.”

 

Zaida and the other women exchange kisses on the cheek and filter out of the mosque, the Van Wyck Expressway a little less busy now. They’ll be back next week.