The Holy Land: Where churches abound and even the water is sacred

TABGHA — On this very shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Christians believe that Jesus fed 5,000 people with nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish. The miracle is marked by a church that draws a steady flow of pilgrims who silently crowd the small space, some of them kneeling by the walls and whispering private confessions into a monk’s shoulder. While the modern church on the site was completed in 1982, some of the floor tiles date to the Byzantine period.

(Godland News / Liz Donovan)

The place’s serenity does not match its frenzied history. About 130 years ago, a German Catholic group called the German Occupation of the Holy Land purchased 250 acres along the Galilee’s shoreline – including what is now Tabgha. The pilgrims did not even know what they had acquired: The original Byzantine church had been destroyed by the end of the seventh century, and the land as they found it was obscured by overgrowth. Only archaeological excavations in 1932 clarified the site as that of two major Biblical episodes, but its proximity to the hostile Israeli-Syrian border prevented the church’s construction until 1967 (when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria).

Since then, said Father Matthias Karl – one of Tabgha’s five Benedictine monks from Germany – life for Christians within Israel has been generally agreeable. The situation in the West Bank, he noted, is “totally different.” There, Karl said, Israel reneges on the democratic principles it tries to uphold within the pre-1967 borders.

But Tabgha has also known the severity of marginalization: In June 2015, Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack against the church that caused seven million shekels in damage. But the aftermath of this atrocity followed the model of generosity that Karl and Tabgha have long tried to set. The room in which we met, he said, was funded entirely by synagogues from around the world who refused to let the arsonists represent Judaism.

Generosity is built into Tabgha’s mission, said Karl, because Jesus performed one of his most generous deeds on these very grounds. For 40 years, the church has been inviting disabled and traumatized Israelis and Palestinians to visit the church together; it now hosts a full-fledged retreat for up to 80 of those children during the summer.

Indeed, Karl seemed at all points more concerned with his faith’s practical impact than with its symbolic implications. Asked about his robes, he joked that the hood saves him from needing to remember a hat.

Before we departed, Karl interacted with us on personal level. One Catholic member of our group, Liz Donovan, brought along a dozen wooden rosary beads that she bought the day before during our visit to Nazareth. She asked the priest to bless them. He held them in one hand while making the sign of the cross over them with the other hand. “Lord, bless these rosaries and the people who use them,” he said and then offered blessing for our group as we continue our studies and journey.

(Godland News / Liz Donovan)

We then drove south through the hilly desert landscape of the West Bank to a baptismal site on the Jordan River known as Qasr al-Yahud. It was here Christians believe that Jesus himself was immersed in the waters by John the Baptist. We arrived around midday, under a hot son and walked to the river along with pilgrims robed in white, their bathing suits visible beneath the robes.

The water in the river was shallow and murky, the color of clay. A sign read “Border Ahead” in multiple languages, and just a few feet across the river was another country: Jordan. Amid the tourists, on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the river, were armed border guards.

Pilgrims were dunking all the way under the brown water and then crossing themselves. Other pilgrims stayed on the sidelines, maybe just dipping their hands or feet into the water. Even though we weren’t there to get baptized, several of our group cooled our feet in the waters, careful not to slide on the slippery bottom.

Our visit was brief, as we had to travel to Bethlehem to explore the Church of Nativity. We breezed quickly through a checkpoint as we passed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The local Palestinian bus behind us was not so lucky and was immediately pulled over. We drove through a gate in the security barrier built by the Israelis more than a decade ago to separate the West Bank.

We arrived in Bethlehem and walked through the cobblestone streets. There were many small square buildings stacked on hills. We went up a small staircase in between buildings and found our guide Salwa. Salwa explained the Church of Nativity is the oldest church in Israel/Palestine and second-oldest in the world only to a church in Armenia. To get inside, we went through a “humility door,” a door so small you have to seriously duck to get through.

Inside, there were cool slabs of stone on the floor and the smell of incense was fairly powerful. It was exceedingly ornamented, with many silver chandeliers and candle holders hanging from the ceiling. The walls were covered with elaborate mosaics and colorful idols hung everywhere.

The birthplace of Christ was actually in a cave, Salwa told us, and not in a manger with wood and straw as it is often depicted in the West. She also noted that Christ’s manger was probably made of limestone, a common commodity in Bethlehem at the time. We slowly made it down semi-circular stone stairs with the rest of the pilgrims. In a small cave in the wall was the birthplace, marked by a silver 14-point star. Many people touched the birthplace and some placed rosary beads in the center and crossed themselves. It seemed to be a remarkable and exciting moment for a person of any kind of faith.

Afterwards, we went to the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit, to meet the executive director, Sami Awad. The organization works with the Palestinian community at both grassroots and leadership levels to promote non-violent tactics to achieve the peace process. We took our shoes off and walked into a large open room with red pillows low to the ground surrounding the edge of the space. The walls were covered in signs that read “peace” in multiple languages. We discussed various aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict and Awad explained his personal ideological shift of Ghandi-ian ideology to King-ian, which meant a shift from advocating a change in borders to a focus on universal civil rights. He also explained the three main reasons he thought were fundamentally prohibiting the peace process: Israeli settlements, disagreements on the definition of “peace,” and restriction of movement. He stressed a sense of resignation common in Palestine and the psychological uncertainty Palestinians faced every day.

But more importantly, he said, is understanding others in the conflict: “Jesus said ‘Love thy enemy.’ We have to know who they are, because love means building oneness.”

Photos from day 4:

The Holy Land is like a chessboard – it needs two players

NAZARETH — At 11:45 this morning, the muezzin called out the Muslim call to prayer in this city holy to Christians but populated overwhelmingly by Muslims. Just a few minutes later, as Muslim men lined up for prayer at the White Mosque, the bells in the tower of the Church of the Annunciation pealed loudly. It was a reminder of the tension between the faiths of this land, each of them vying for space, time and even the airwaves.

But one religious leader we met with today said that the conflict is not about religion.

“The conflict between Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druzes in the Holy Land is not really based on religion,” said Bishop Hanna Kildani, the new Latin patriarch for Nazareth. “The problem is the ground – to whom [does] the land [belong to]? When you play chess with someone, you need at least two players.”

Kildani was born in 1955 in Jordan and earned a Ph.D. in history from Saint Joseph Jesuit University in Beirut. In his view, religions should stop fighting about the land. Jerusalem, he said, is the one capital in the world that is accountable solely to the Lord and should therefore belong to everyone.

We were greeted with warm hospitality in the bishop’s office, just a few steps away from the Church of the Annunciation. Catholics believe that it was on this spot that the Archangel Gabriel delivered the news to Mary that she would be pregnant with a son.

The courtyard of the Church of the Annunciation was adorned with beautifully rendered artistic depictions of Mary from around the world.

Despite the bishop’s words, religious conflict abounds here. Recently, the Muslim group petitioned unsuccessfully to build a mosque next to the tomb of Shihab’al-din, a Muslim holy man. However, an improvisational “protest mosque” still stands.

Back at the patriarchate, Kildani said that Christians, who represent only two percent of the Israeli population, should build bridges, rather than walls, to other communities and between other communities.

However, he says that many Christian and Palestinian Arabs feel frustrated and disillusioned. “We recognize the borders of 1948,” he said. “We recognize the state of Israel, but not the occupation.” Former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had been the embodiment for peace for him. Kildani said that he had tears in his eyes when this great statesman was assassinated. For him, Shimon Peres, the late president of Israel, had encapsulated the problem of the conflict of the land when he said that “we have a lot of history here in Israel, but very few geography.”

After we bade farewell to the bishop, we stopped for a quick lunch in the center of Nazareth before heading north to Mount Meron, the highest point in the land of Israel. Our bus made its way, first through gridlocked traffic and then a sprawling green countryside, to a trail that circled near the top of the mountain. We joined other hikers on a rocky and narrow path marked by white, blue and orange signs sprayed onto large rocks.

Professor Yarden took the lead. We made two stops along the way – one for a stunning scenic overlook with views of the Israeli city of Safed, and the other to talk about the religious significance of hiking in Israeli Jewish culture. Yarden explained that during the weeks around Passover, schools take students on nature hikes.

“Hiking the land and getting to know the land is part of the Israeli patriotic culture,” said Yarden. “To know the land is to take ownership of the land.” Early Zionists, who did not have strong connections to it, believed that hiking would help them reconnect to it. It helped them get to know the history of Israel, he said.

“Hiking the land was part of a civil religion, of a new Judaism – a secular one,” said Yarden. “But it brought the old devotion to a new object.” Indeed, we passed a group of about 50 students from Yeshiva Mevaseret who were hiking from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, while we ourselves were bypassed by a gaggle of young boys and girls.

Following the hike, we made our way down meandering roads toward Bet Jann where we met with Druze Sheikh Jamil Khatib. We drank tea and coffee in his living room before moving to his terrace, which overlooked the town of some 12,000 Israeli Druze citizens.

Khatib laid out a short history of the Druze and the centuries-long persecution they’ve endured that has pushed them to create private communities. Their house of prayer in Bet Jann is self-effacing, built in a non-descriptive area so that outsiders cannot recognize it. Khatib added that during prayer, men and women are separated, with men praying out loud while women do so silently.

The values and beliefs of the Druze community are important and need to be passed on to the people who understand them, said the sheikh, referring to the concept that outsiders aren’t allowed to join or even study the books of the community. Only Druze can learn and practice the faith and such an exclusion of others also prohibits intermarriage.

However, Khatib emphasized the Druze’s respect of other religions, saying that God created differences among us for a reason.

“Human diversity is just a reflection of the greatness of God,” said Khatib. “We all came from Adam and Eve and it is obviously God’s will and part of the plan.”

Following our conversation, the sheikh’s family brought in platters of home-cooked foods, including rice and lentil dishes, roasted carrots, a tart tomato and cucumber salad and stuffed grape leaves shaped like thick cigars. Khatib offered a Druze prayer to start the meal.

The meal concluded our third day in Israel with the sheikh’s words ringing in our ears as yet another lesson: “We should live in this world with an awareness that we’re temporary residents,” said Khatib. “We should try to improve but we should leave the world as good or better when we leave.”

Khatib said that we, as journalists, had a special responsibility to tell the story of the Druze in Israel. He noted that we came not just from New York but from around the world and he sent us off with wishes of good luck and success in our lives and work.

Photos from day 3:

The type of news no one ever reports

HAIFA — If we started our journey through the Holy Land with a look at ethnic minority refugees in South Tel Aviv, we continued it today with a visit to two of its smallest minority religions, the Bahá’i and the Ahmadi Muslims.

Our first stop: The Baha’i World Center. There are not many Bahá’ís – only about five million around the world – but, according to our Baha’i guide, Rodney Clarken, it is the second most widely distributed religion, right behind Christianity.

The Bahá’í faith is a religion of all religions. All beliefs are considered valid and the Bahá’ís see the world’s major religions as chapters in God’s teachings. There are no clergy or churches, but they do have one place that’s especially sacred – this region in the north of Israel, where the remains of two important figures in the faith, the Báb and Abdu’l Baha, lay. Here we were, standing right there, most of us in awe.

Full disclosure: I spent some time with a few Bahá’ís in New York, so I knew anecdotally what to expect in terms of the beauty of the Bahá’í World Center. Like some of the Bahá’ís back in the States, Clarken, a retired professor from the U.S., told us how honored he felt to live and work there as an archival assistant. Clarken, who has volunteered there for six years, did not initially want to do it. In fact, he said he came as a “sacrifice to God.” But now, he says that he’s never been happier.

Clarken will work at the Bahá’í World Center for one more year, then he will leave Israel. None of the Bahá’í volunteers are permanent residents of the Holy Land, nor are they allowed to be. That’s the way the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, wanted it.

That means Haifa is home to a faith with no community there, and it’s also home to another religion where its only community in Israel is in that city: Ahmadiyya. The Ahmadis – as the worshippers are called – consider themselves to be a sect of Islam, though they do not believe that Mohammed is the final prophet, as orthodox Muslims do. Seventy to 80 percent of the 2,200 Ahmadis in Kababir, a neighborhood in Haifa, are from one clan, the Oudeh family, which converted to Ahadiyya four generations ago. So was the next man we met with: Muad Oudeh, the Secretary General of the Ahmadi Muslim community of Kababir.

Oudeh’s favorite question might be “why?” (really, he should be a journalist). When we arrived at the mosque, he immediately asked us why worshippers come to places like that one to pray. We all guessed: “To talk to God?” “To be with the community?” No, he said. He offered a reason of his own: worshipping at a mosque is coming to meet God.

Oudeh, an energetic man with plenty of stories, tackled another big why: Why the division and hatred between different religious groups?

“We have a huge issue in interrupting God’s words,” said Oudeh. He said the way certain passages are understood (or misunderstood, perhaps) create division.

But when it comes to physical places, there is in fact a line of division for Oudeh. Haifa is the “Holy City,” and it does not belong to Israel, he said.

“The Jewish state is not my state,” said Oudeh, who identifies as Palestinian. “The anthem, the flag…I am not inside.”

Oudeh said he often meets with leaders of different faiths to talk about the differences they have. But he’s tired of talking. He said that once, on a visit to Jerusalem, he proposed walking down the street with a rabbi, holding hands. A Muslim and a rabbi in unity, he said. Think about the example that would set! The rabbi wasn’t ready yet, but Oudeh said that he is.

But the unlikely sight of a rabbi and imam embracing is a common occurrence in a city that is just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, the city of Acco. During our visit to Acco this afternoon, we gathered in a local theater to meet that rabbi and imam. When Imam Samir Assi entered the room, Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar, rose from his seat. The two men embraced with hugs, kisses and handshakes, like two long-time friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. They truly are friends – best friends, actually, if you ask Yashar. They serve as an example in Acco – where Arabs make up more than 30 percent of the population – that Muslims and Jews can be neighbors peacefully.

“There is no secret recipe,” the rabbi told us in Hebrew, with Professor Yarden serving as a translator. If everyone respects “basic humanity of our neighbors, we can live together.”

Assi, who until recently was the imam of the second-largest mosque in Israel, agreed. “I need to understand people who are different from me,” he said, also in Hebrew. “It all begins with showing respect to one another.”

While there is still tension between the communities and incidents of incitement in Acco, Yashar and Assi believe their city can be a model for coexistence.

“This type of news, no one ever reports,” Assi said.

For a room full of journalists, this was a good lesson. Later that night our group drove to the northern Israel city of Tiberias where we set up our pop-up newsroom in the Restal Hotel. Among the pictures and stories that we posted on our website, Godland, were the images and words of the rabbi and the imam of Acco.

Photos from day 2:

Entering the Holy Land through the back door

TEL AVIV — The African migrants of this Israeli city have recently been in the news, but they are not that visible to most tourists. The migrants live in the poorer, out-of-the-way precincts of Tel Aviv, near the Central Bus Station, far from the luxury hotels that line the Mediterranean beaches.

But since we have come not as tourists but as journalists, the migrants and their churches were our first stop after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Professor Yarden told us that we were deliberately entering the country “through the back door.”

And so, we found ourselves at the Grace Covenant Gospel Church with a preacher from Ghana, Pastor Solomon, who ministers to the migrants. His is one of more than a dozen churches in the area around the bus station. Pastor Solomon has a kind face, bright eyes and hair that’s just beginning to gray.

Many of these migrants – from such places as Ivory Coast, Cameroon, South Africa, Congo and Ghana – have endured extreme hardships along the way and are at high risk for homelessness and drug addiction. “Sometimes you walk around and you see people just going crazy,” Solomon said, as he extended his hand towards the window behind us. “For them, this is the end of their rope.”

So Solomon offers three months of temporary shelter at the church, which occupies the fifth floor of a run-down tenement building in one of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods. “Our purpose is to give them hope,” he told us. “They are very injured when they get here.” His church also provides free food on Saturdays. Many of the African migrants living in the Middle East are men who’ve left their families in their home countries. So the church becomes their family.

“This is the only country in the Middle East where we can freely express our religion,” he said.

But not all are in the country legally and sometimes parishioners get arrested and deported. Whenever Solomon hears of an arrest, the congregation bands together to raise funds to hire a lawyer. But sometimes it is too late and the parishioner has already been deported.

African migrants have been coming to Israel in large number since the 1990s. After the government recently moved to expel many of them, there have been protests by both the migrants and their Israeli supporters against such deportations. One of us asked Solomon if his group ever participated in these. “We try to stay away from politics,” he said. “We are only here to serve the Lord.”

Solomon’s church was our third stop after the bus picked us up from Ben Gurion Airport this morning. After meeting Professor Goldman and Yarden, we went to Levinsky Park, which is a central meeting area for many of the African asylum seekers now in Israel. There we met Lisa Richlen, a Ph.D. student who briefed us on the history and statistics of migrants and asylum seekers in the country. She pointed out there is a high rate of drug use and prostitution in south Tel Aviv, where many of the most marginalized communities reside. “Natali Kingdom of Pork” declared the sign on a restaurant opposite the park. In a country made up of mostly Jews and Muslims, the sign proclaimed the unique nature of this district.

But pork wasn’t on the menu for us today. And rather than falafel or pita for lunch, we enjoyed the traditional African food of that district. We were greeted warmly inside by several African men who brought out platters of injera bread, beef, fried whole fish, beans, rice and okra. The proprietors were Jacob, a Muslim man from Darfour, and Sbhat, a younger Christian man from Eritrea. When we inquired about their interfaith business venture, both men laughed joyfully. “Jacob, he is like my father!” Sbhat said.

The delicious food on top of the jet lag made weary travelers of us all. We boarded the bus to what Goldman called “the front door of Israel,” the beachfront area of luxury hotels, embassies and art galleries. When we got back to the hotel, many of us strolled down to the beach to watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean. Then we had a relaxed dinner and were joined by Covering Religion alumna Yardena Schwartz, CJS ’11.

On our first day in Israel, we barely met any Israelis or Jews or Arabs or Muslims. We followed one of the biggest news stories coming out of Israel by spending the day with African migrants. We’ve got the rest of the week to explore the others.

Photos from day 1: