Day #8 : Jerusalem

JERUSALEM -- It was a brisk Sunday morning — our final full day of our Israel/Palestine journey — and the skies were gray and wet.

We walked to the back of a long line that extended down the hill adjacent  to the Western Wall, waiting to enter the Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount: a site sacred to several religions, but governed according to Muslim authority.

The rain started to pick up in pace. Our classmates whipped their umbrellas out; the women unleashed headscarves to cover themselves before entering the site. We had been instructed that morning to dress carefully: No tight fitting clothes. No shorts. Dresses preferred. And no non-Muslim religious articles. Ophir Yarden, our guide, would soon explain why.

“When things are sensitive, everything is sensitive,” he said, adding that  political tensions tended to make the Temple Mount’s Islamic authorities,  known as the Waqf, even more vigilant than usual.

We approached the entrance. There were metal detectors and an x-ray machine. Nearby is a leather-clad bible and other religious objects, both Jewish and Christian, sitting on a shelf before the entrance. Visitors, many of them tourists, had presumably tried to bring them in, wittingly or unwittingly in spite of the rules.

While we were waiting to pass through security, Ophir filled us in on some of the context. The Temple Mount, where Jews believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, is holy among Jews who believe this to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. For Christians, Jesus Christ was believed to have been found at the Temple Mount after his parents, Mary and Joseph, went searching for a child they thought they’d lost.

But the site is exceptionally sacred among Muslims. For the initial 16 to 18 months of Muhammad’s ministry, his followers  prayed towards Jerusalem. Muhammad’s “night journey” in Islam is also a large contributor to the Temple Mount’s status, during which, Muslims believe,  he traveled from Arabia to Jerusalem at a transcendent pace.

And there are two crucially important mosques in the compound: a black-domed building that faces Mecca, and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, on the opposite site. Only Muslims are allowed inside.

We made our way across the wooden bridge  to the Al Aqsa compound, which  encompasses the entire space and not just its famous mosque. Before we enter,  Ophir points to riot gear near the stone entryway.

“Hopefully they stay there for the next hour, and the next year,” he said, before ushering us forward.

Ophir  gave us some insight into the tensions over the Temple Mount.  There are many Jews who believe that not only were the first and second temples build here, but that a  third temple will also arise  here one day.

Because of this, security within the compound is especially tight.  Ophir explained  that a religious Jew was arrested last week for praying on the Temple Mount, and that a young girl was prevented from entering the Old City on Purim, because she was dressed as a high priest with a sacrificial lamb. Security forces in the area feared that her costume would start a riot.

Non-Islamic rituals practiced at the Temple Mount are viewed through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ophir said, and through the perspective of cultural encroachment, making seemingly small things tense.

“If Jews were to pray here, there would be resistance,” he said. “It’s a national tension, but religion adds oil to the fire.”

We strolled through the rain, some of us ill-prepared for the droplets that soaked our socks through our sneakers. This was it. The last remaining hours of our trip. Our professor, Ari Goldman, suggested that we pose for a class picture in front of the Dome of the Rock.

We were wet. We were cold. We were layered. We've looked better in other pictures.

We clustered together on the steps facing the mosque’s bright, reflective dome. The awe many of us shared, standing in one of the world's holiest places at the end of our journey, might have escaped the photograph.

 


Day #5 : Bethlehem, Part I

BEIT SAHOUR -- This morning we woke up in the homes of the Palestinian families who hosted us overnight in this town just east of Bethlehem. Maiz, the school-age daughter of the family, sat at the breakfast table and learned that school was cancelled. If the math exam she had been diligently revising for the night before was consequently postponed, Maiz was far from celebrating.

Maiz’s school, like most of the businesses and shops in Bethlehem  remained closed in an act of solidarity. The night before, just a few miles away, Ahmad Manasra, a 26-year-old  Palestinian was shot dead at an Israeli military checkpoint. The young man’s death marked the fourth killing of Palestinians in the past 24 hours.

As we left the homes of our hosts and made our way to the Christmas Lutheran Church in the  Old City of Bethlehem, a climate of tension was palpable.

Yet, the tension around us was just a regular feature in the life of  Pastor Munther Isaac. As he sat in the chilly basement of the Christmas Lutheran Church, the pastor   gave us a brief introduction into the Christian Palestinian community, a group he called “second class citizen in their own land.”

 

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Isaac explored five main contemporary challenges faced by the Palestinian community:

1:  A gap between the people and the Christian religious establishment, mainly on issues such as the selling of church-owned land to Israel.

2: The political  reality of the occupation,  means that  Israel controls  every aspect of their life, from freedom of movement to who Palestinians  can marry.

3: The unemployment rate in the Occupied Palestine Territory  currently sits at approximately 27 percent. For recent graduates, the situation is even tougher and the unemployment rate reached 55 percent  in 2017. Pastor Isaac also cited water as one of the sources of economic hardship.

4:  As the Palestinians are cut off from both their Jewish and Arab neighbors,  Christians started developing a minority complex in the West-Bank.

5: “The Church worldwide is part of the problem, not the solution,” said Isaac. Evangelical Christians – who see 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel as a sign of God - are particularly not helping the debate to move forward according to Pastor Isaac.

Our heads filled with new perspectives on the conflict and the issues playing out on the ground, we rushed to the Nativity Church without time to process and digest the enlightening conversation we just had with Pastor Isaac.

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

There, our tour guide Nour was seemingly moved by Wednesday’s night tragic event. Yet, the young Palestinian remained professional and gave us a rapid tour of the Nativity Church built in 565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

One by one -like the 3.5 million tourists and pilgrims who visit the site each year - we entered the Basilica through its 1.2 meters high  door that forces every visitor to bow down and show respect, but also “lows the egos of several state leaders who come to the church,” said Nour with a smile.

If the Basilica is currently being restored, our group still got a comprehensive tour of the UNESCO World Heritage and especially the grotto - a small alcove under the main altar area - regarded by various denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. An unsettling and enriching moment.

 


Day #3, Part II: Beit Jann

BEIT JANN -- After lunch in Nazareth, our bus started driving further into the hills of Galilee. Our first stop was in Cana, where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration.

 

Sister Karen received us in Kafr Kana, at a Christian school teaching English, Hebrew, and Arabic to children from three to 13 years-old. Originally, Sister Karen comes from New Jersey. It’s her eighth year in Israel. Prior to teaching English, she spent a year on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here, she enjoyed discovering a new culture. “Here, wedding receptions last for almost a week,” laughed Sister Karen. “That’s maybe why they ran out of wine!”

 

Back on the road, our bus wove into the heart of the Galilean hills strewed with olive and pomegranate trees, to the Druze village of Beit Jann. As we enjoyed the spectacular views, Ophir recalled the early history of Jewish inhabitants in the Holy Land. Back at the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Zenati family settled in a few villages of Upper Galilee. The Jewish community was numerically insignificant, but it has a symbolic representation of the continuity of Jewish demography in Israel.

 

Today, Beit Jann is home to another religious community that faced persecution in the Middle East: the Druze and their estimated 140,000 adherents in Israel. There, Sheikh Jamil Khatib, a prominent faith leader from the Druze community, welcomed us in his wood-paneled living room overlooking a Galilean valley bathed in a picturesque sunset.

 

“The encounter between people make them closer together,” said Sheikh Khatib. “And for us to develop honor, respect, warmth, and love.”

 

The leader of the Druze community and Beit Jann native explained to our group how the Druze faith developed in a strong commitment to monotheism while respecting all the prophets and other religions. The community is divided into two segments of worshippers: the religious, who are the only worshippers who have exclusive to the holy texts, unlike the secular, or the uninitiated, freer in their daily practices.

 

Sheikh Khatib explained that Druze ceremonies and traditions are unique. One does not convert to the Druze faith, but can only be born in a Druze family. It takes three months for a believer to become a religious leader, who represent role models for the whole community. The role of these leaders is crucial to pass on the traditions and keep the religion alive. Sheikh Khatib’s grey mustache revealed a proud smile as he mentioned that unlike other religions, no Druze leader had ever been accused nor convicted of crimes of some sort. “He who is heroic can control his impulses and let his values guide him,” said the sheikh, quoting a rabbinic saying.

 

( Photo Courtesy of Natacha Larnaud)

We were presented with the diverse symbols of the faith, such as the colors of the flag and the faith’s main leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose portraits were hanged in almost every corner of the living room. The flag of the state of Israel hangs proudly near the Druze symbols. Outside of honor and religion, the attachment to the land is the third fundamental value of the Druze faith, and tradition requires them to remain loyal to the state of the land they inhabit.

 

Our discussion was interrupted by Sheikh Khatib’s wife Ibtisam - meaning “smile,” in Arabic- and the rest of the family who brought food platters for us to enjoy Druze food. Stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, rice and lentils dishes, home-made bread and hand-picked vegetables salad: obviously reputedly the best food in the region.

 

After we unabashedly helped ourselves to more food, dinner was followed by a discussion with Sawsan Kheir, a double Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University and Abo Akademi University in Finland, working on the evolution of Druze and Muslim communities in Israel.

 

Kheir walked us through her research on how the Druze youth has been slowly turning away from religion as they progressively open up to a more Westernized environment, with access to social media and other cultures influencing their identity.

 

But deep inside, Kheir explained, the Druze maintain a profound sense of spirituality and remain proud of their identity. Even if Israeli Druzes are prevented from connecting closely with their Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, they support each other and believe that they form one community. “Keeping this brotherhood is fundamental to us,” said Kheir. “There is this spiritual connection, this mutual help that unites us.”

 


Day #2, Part I : Haifa

HAIFA -- For a good stretch of Highway 4, wrapping around Israel's northwestern hook called Haifa, you can immediately spot two things: the vast expanse of bright blue ocean to your left and two tall white stone minarets peeking over the hills to your right. On the drive north, over the hump of the Mt. Karmel range, and you’ll find 19 concentric rings of luscious garden terraces tapering upwards consume the landscape. 

Baha'i World Center, Haifa.
(Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Despite the undeniable presence of these massive features in the Haifa metropolis, often neither of the religions associated with these structures is conjured in the minds of people when they think of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is often associated with “umbrella” religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but the nuanced voices of the minority diaspora are often glanced over as it falls into the “other” category of theology pie charts. 

The two towering spires of white granite belong to the Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted sect of Islam founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The expansive and meticulously manicured Baha’i Gardens are the intentionally designed work of the Baha’i faith’s international community. While one faith spoke of its war for peace within, the other actively advocated peace in the community without.

The gardens were our first stop today. “The shrine in the center is like the gemstone in the ring, and the gardens around it are the adornments,” said the volunteer guide, Douglas Baker. “The windows of the shrine are like perfect mirrors, reflecting God’s light.” 

Each element of the 150-year-long construction of the gardens was intentional. “The symmetry reflects unity, yet the varying flora on each level of the gardens represent the simultaneous diversity,” said Anouchka Venkadee, another volunteer (one of about 600 that come each year to run the gardens). The garden was the physical manifestation of a core element of the Baha’i faith—actively creating an environment of peace. A tour of the Baha’i visitor’s center confirmed this as the group showed a short video capturing the religion’s presence across 200 countries. The very international community of five million gathers regularly to promote peacekeeping policies to actively better their outward environment. “It’s kind of like this,” said Carmel Irandoust, a volunteer who previously worked with Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations, “We all live in the same street. How can we work together to make this street better?”

As the Baha’is actively advocate for peace in the outside community, the Ahmadis in Kababir talk of their war for peace within. It was a just short drive from the gardens to the Ahmadi mosque. Imam Falah M. O’deh greeted us and, learning we were journalists, wanted to be sure we understood something about Islam.  “Jihad, in the Quran, never comes in connection to physical war,” he said. “We fight to translate the meaning of Islam. This is the real jihad.”

Imam Falah M. O’deh
( Photo Courtesy for Eleonore Voisard)

As Christian site crumbles, conflict over ownership delays repairs

JERUSALEM — “There is a time,” the Bible tells us, “to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” For the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, however, the act of moving even a single stone can provoke the greatest of controversies.

Stones have apparently complicated restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of shrines and altars that houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the place where Jesus died on the cross, and the place where he was resurrected.

Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of these places. They have devised among themselves an elaborate choreography of how and when each church can use each space. 

On September 22nd, 2017, the Church of the Archangel Michael, part of the Holy Sepulchre complex, was ordered closed after a small stone fell from its the ceiling.

Instead of repairing it, the two churches that claim ownership over the church prevented one another from making necessary repairs. One of them is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has long claimed ownership of the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the surrounding courtyard atop the complex, called Deir El-Sultan. The other church that claims ownership is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

When the stone fell, the Copts and the Ethiopians could not decide who was to take responsibility for reinforcing the ceiling of the Church of the Archangel Michael. The physical damage caused by the falling stone, however, paled in comparison to the fragile peace that was shattered between the two churches as age-old disputes bubbled to the surface.

It was not a matter of money. “Everyone can afford to repair it,” explained the Rev. Marcos Alorshalmey, the secretary of the Coptic order. “It’s only a small piece of the roof, but the Ethiopians don’t recognize us as the owners.”

St. Antony’s – Father Markos Alorshalemy, Secretary (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

He said that the Copts and Ethiopians generally cooperate. “At the end of the day, we are all one Christian community. But if you have a right, you cannot just leave it – you have to defend it.”

But the Ethiopians have a different story. Bar Markos is one of 21 monks living in cramped cells in Deir El-Sultan.

He claims that the Ethiopian presence goes back 2,000 or more years. “There were monks at the time of Jesus Christ here,” said Markos, shaking an English-language pamphlet in his right hand.

“And before that, the Queen of Sheba secured this land for the Ethiopians from King Solomon.”

After this confident declaration, he invited tourists to come and see their one remaining church, where a painting of the Abyssinians bringing gifts to the Davidic king hangs from the wall.

Deir El-Sultan – Bar Markos, left, is one of around 21 monks living on the holy site. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

When Alorshalemy heard of this claim, he was baffled.

“But King Solomon was not Christian!” cried Alorshalemy.

“And more than that, during the time of King Solomon, there was no one here. There was no monastery. No church. No nothing! So, how come King Solomon gave them this area?” he questioned, repeatedly.

Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the archaeological and historical record falls silent on these claims, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a destination of Christian pilgrimage since at least 325 A.D., when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have rediscovered the holy site.

Mutual recognition between the two Oriental churches of an Ethiopian presence on Deir El-Sultan begins in the 17th Century.

Both sides are in agreement that, in 1654, the Armenians and Greeks evicted the Ethiopians from their altars inside the main church when they could not afford to pay taxes on their property.

At that time, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, as an apostolic see, ministered to the Copts and Ethiopians. It was not until 1959, when the Coptic Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopians their own patriarch, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church became fully independent.

“Before, they had no place to go,” said Alorshemy. “So we, as their mother church, allowed them to stay as guests until they found somewhere else.

“Back then, the Copts were few in number, so the Ethiopians ended up staying there for many years.”

In fact, the Ethiopians go a step farther than this in their official history, which is summarized in a pamphlet that is readily available from their church offices. They claim that it was actually the Copts – and a man by the name of Ibrahim Giuhari, specifically – who stole property from the Ethiopians back in 1774. No evidence was produced to corroborate this event.

The Copts, however, say that they have evidence that they were there even earlier. For example, the iconostasis and other engravings bear the hallmarks of Coptic design. Official documents date these artifacts to the early 12th century.

Circa late-1800s – Coptic monks praying in the two disputed churches of Deir El-Sultan (Courtesy of St. Antony’s Coptic Monastery)

Though none of the monks speak fluent English, Hebrew or even Arabic, the pamphlet goes to pains to describe the poverty of the Ethiopian community, who, through the centuries have lost the majority of their properties in the Holy Land. Their last stand, they seem to be saying, is Deir El-Sultan. What emerges from this short historical pamphlet is a people clinging on dearly to what little they have.

Shortly after the dispute over the fallen stone, the Coptic Metropolitan Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East, Anba Antonios, issued a press statement saying that the Copts should be put in charge of the renovation based on legal precedents. He recounted the number of times the Ethiopians had wrongfully tried to seize their property and had failed.

“We call upon all parties concerned to support the Coptic Church in preserving its property in the Holy Land,” said the bishop.

Twice, he wrote, the Ethiopians had stolen the keys to Deir El-Sultan’s main buildings and gates – once in 1850, and again, in 1862. In both cases, the Ottomans ruled in favor of the Copts by decree.

The Dome of the Church of St. Helen – an Ethiopic monk prays decades of the rosary. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Alorshalemy speculates that these incidents instilled within the Ethiopians the feeling that they were under threat of expulsion. On two separate occasions since the 19th century, the Ethiopians have secretly attempted to commission renovations and painting, in order to exercise some proprietary right over the premises. In 1959, a Jordanian court even decided to hand over the keys to the Ethiopians, but this was short-lived, as the Copts successfully petitioned King Hussein a year later.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated Egypt, the Israeli government turned Deir El-Sultan over to the Ethiopians. Again, the Copts appealed and won in the Israeli Supreme Court, but the decision was not acted upon.

“The Israeli government has refused to implement the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1971 to the present day,” explained the bishop in dismay.

To preserve their rights, the Copts have devised a series of symbolic acts and gestures, which, they believe, proves their undisputed ownership.

“We have one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where the head of the monks in that monastery should stay,” said Father Alorshalemy.

“That room is ours, so one of our monks goes and sleeps there every day,” he added. “But because there is no water, no electricity, no sewage, we take it in turns to stay there.”

The 21-strong Ethiopian community feels much aggrieved by their lot, too, but they blame it largely on the Copts.

They complain that for 80 years, until 1970, the two Ethiopian shrines were locked for Easter, and they had to celebrate outside in the open air. Similarly, at times, the purported shutdown prevented the Ethiopians “from burying the corpses of dead priests and nuns,” reads the pamphlet. These claims have not been independently verified.

“Politics is a dirty game,” lamented Bar Markos, bowing his head.

“Even your cat or your dog cannot live in this place. In this society, in this century – there is no humanity.”

Deir El-Sultan– Ethiopian monks have lived here in ‘temporary residence’ since 1654, when they were evicted from the main church. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

These accusations have deeply upset the Copts, though despite living several feet apart, the two orders rarely meet, or converse, on account of the language barrier. This makes a resolution near impossible. At present, there is only one clerical figure who speaks Amharic and Arabic, and he resides with the Copts. His name is the Rev. Gabriel Selassie. He is at least 93-years-old and was ostracized from the Ethiopian community 18 years ago for supporting the Coptic position.

In 2008, the late Dominican priest, the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, published a book entitled "The Holy Land." He alleged that the Copts were “torturing” the Ethiopians, forcing them to live in poverty. Alorshalemy said that he was shocked at the charges, which, in his view, made the Copts out to be “bad people.” He wrote to Oxford University Press, requesting a correction in the next edition.

The Copts see it differently. In light of their charity work and sustained commitment to allowing the Ethiopians to stay on Deir El-Sultan, the monks of St. Anthony’s take great offense to such judgments on their character.

“It’s simply not true – not true at all,” sighed Father Alorshalemy.

Almost a month to the day after the stone fell, the Dangerous Buildings Department of the Jerusalem Municipality sent government-appointed engineers to admit equipment to the site to begin repairs. As a compromise, the Israeli government had offered to fix the roof.

But the Copts had flatly refused unless certain conditions were met. Among these, the Copts insisted that they – and not the Ethiopians or the Israeli government – pay for the restoration. It was clearly a way of asserting ownership.

No reply came.

“As we did not receive any reply, we sent several other letters to confirm our readiness,” recalled Bishop Antonios.

“We sent the engineering report, the blueprints and the contract agreement to the engineering office assigned with the renovations,” he added. “But we have yet to receive any written response.”

And neither would they. The government proposal to take control of the renovation was not the one the Copts had hoped for. When they heard the news, the Archbishop hurried to assemble all the Coptic monks, deacons and priests to peacefully protest the decision. They stood at the gate and waited until engineers left without delivering the equipment.

“The Egyptian Embassy intervened in this matter,” said the Coptic bishop, “and this led to the delay of the work until coordination in writing is made with us.” The entry of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry into these negotiations has undoubtedly raised the stakes, for the confrontation has now escalated beyond a petty church dispute.

But it remains to be seen what will happen next, and more importantly, how the Ethiopians will react. Alorshalemy is optimistic that a solution will be reached soon, though the Ethiopians will not compromise so easily.

Deir El-Sultan – An Ethiopian nun reads a newspaper. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)