This was a demanding eight days. It has been a stretch to get my head around some of the complexities of this contended city in a contended land and I feel I have only just begun. My admiration for the way that Palestinian Christians and Muslims are able to share space and friendships has only developed and grown since I have been here. And my fear for the way that anxious Judaism and a fearful Israeli state raise tension and provoke anger is new to me too. I need to reflect on this more.
I have also made new and deeper friendships with those I have spent time with here – both Christian and Muslim. I hope that something of what we have found in the adversity of this Holy Land we can bring back to the comfort of our UK lives.
Well, we have just had our final meal. Here is Dr Mustafa Abu Sway with the Bishop of Kingston who organised the course. I hope +Richard can get his new scarf through airport security – there can be no guarantees.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is a small rise on the edge of East Jerusalem with a great drop from the 1000m height of the city towards the Dead Sea further east and 400m below sea level. You can see the Dead Sea from the top. The mount also has a commanding view of the city if you look west. Presumably it was once full of olive trees. Now it is 50% cemetery.
Our group of Christians and Muslims took to an olive grove near the crest of the ridge to reflect on the past few days. It was clear that we were still not ready to ask really difficult questions of each other but that relationships had grown with a deeper understanding and respect. Perhaps reaching out across the faiths is after all about relationships before anything else. In Jerusalem it is clear that there is a deep level of interfaith friendship between Christian and Muslim (at least in some sectors of society) that could be a real example to the world. Our group had mainly been exposed to Palestinians that the British would think of as the middle classes and it would be interesting to test out how relationships work at other levels of society here another time. But this is a nation that is anxious and fearful. And the fearfulness draws a hard boundary between Jew and Arab that very few yet seem to be reaching across. It is difficult to see hope where there is an imbalance of power and force, but the relationships that the Christians and Muslims we met have forged is somewhere that hope can be found here. I pray that this is a source of spreading hope and not one that will be extinguished. It is a delicate flower and, as Arab Christians flee the land, it only becomes more fragile.
Top: The Mount of Olives as seen from the Muslim Cemetery just below Haram al-Sharif
Left: Poppies growing in an olive grove
Middle: The Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, now part of a Mosque complex (see the minaret in the background) but open for Christians to worship here – a powerful example of a shared worship space
Right: The modern and Islamic influenced Church of the Agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
The golden onions of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene with the Islamic Cemetery in the background.
The Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children
This morning’s visit to The Mount of Olives began with a stop at the Princess Basma Centre for Children with Disabilities. This is a hospital run by the Diocese of Jerusalem seeing mainly out-patients from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The hospital helps children with a wide range of disabilities and their families learn to lead full lives.
inclusive education for children with disabilities
Empowerment of the children and parents
Building capacity to act as a national resource
Capacity building and job creation for people with disabilities
It currently runs at a deficit with some voluntary funding and some from the Palestinian Authority (PA). The hospital used to receive money from the American Government but since American disagreement with the PA this has stopped.
You cannot help but be impressed at what this small diocese does running thirty five institutions, of which this is only one, making a material difference to the lives of Palestinians. In the UK we are used to the idea of running schools but we gave up running hospitals very quickly after the state took responsibility. The Diocese of Jerusalem seems to run on a knife edge. Governance of its institutions is a huge responsibility for senior members of the diocese and the risks are significant. Muslim colleagues said it was difficult to see the same sense of social responsibility turning into action among Islamic societies.
I wonder why that is? I wonder too why we would struggle to find an English diocese running a hospital and yet we have so many schools?
Two speakers at dinner last night: Tala Dawani who works for World Vision as their fund raiser here and is also the Bishop’s daughter, and Aminah Abu Sway who works at al-Quds University and is daughter of Dr Mustafa Abu Sway, our Muslim guide earlier in the week. They both spoke about loving your neighbour as yourself. As Christian and Muslim Palestinians they were united. But both struggled with the idea of loving one’s enemies. I think they wanted to, but it was hard now under the experience of oppression.
Tala told us of her journey to work in the morning. A house was being bulldozed down and the soldiers had surrounded it, clearly pleased it was being demolished. Some of them looked only 17 or 18 years old. And they were rejoicing that someone’s home was being destroyed. And she had to drive by because you couldn’t stop or help or do anything. It was a raw moment shared over beautifully cooked Palestinian food.
A fantastic afternoon today with 15 year old pupils and their English teacher from St George’s School, one of many institutions run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. The students at the school are approximately 10% Christian and 90% Muslim. They told us that they see themselves primarily as Palestinians together, not divided by religion. Many make best friends with others of a different faith. We talked much about marriage and future educational and employment prospects. For a Muslim girl to marry a Christian boy would be difficult. The students tend not to proselytise one another, but sometimes young adults change faith for the sake of marriage if they have to.
Most Palestinians cannot hold an Israeli passport. For foreign travel they sometimes obtain one from Jordan. But without Israeli citizenship they cannot serve in the Israeli Army and this hinders their futures. They are also limited in their education beyond the school and told they will be barred from restricted professions such as being a pilot or working as a nuclear scientist.
For these young men English was their second language, yet they spoke with eloquence, passion, hope and intelligence about their faith, their nation and their futures.
The corner of the wall beyond the plaza created for prayer. The al-Asqa Mosque sits above this wall, and only a small length from where you can see the city ground level rising from the ruins is set aside for prayer. Within this walled mount Jews believe the Foundation of the World to be. A holy place against which to pour out your soul in prayer.
Two pictures of the division between men and women with their separate entrances and separate areas of prayer. Women stand at the fence and peep over or take photographs. Men pray against that part of the wall closer to the Foundation Stone.
Fountain for ritual ablutions.
When you visit this place you can be left in no doubt that this is a part of God’s earth that matters.
Well, today our Christian and Muslim group was granted special access to the two principle buildings on Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif as it is called in the Islamic world. The two buildings we were secreted around were the Dome on the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Dome on the Rock (exterior: top; interior: left and middle of the triptych) is an extremely ornately decorated octagonal building surrounding the rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet ascended to heaven. In Jewish thought this rock is the Foundation of the World, the centre of all things and first point of creation. This was a holy place, quiet and prayerful despite extensive restoration work under way. Muslim Prayer space is generally very open – all that is needed is a carpet to kneel on and an indication of the direction of Mekkah.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is a much larger rectangular and aisled building facing the Dome on the Rock (interior: bottom). Two insults were pointed out to us by our guide one of which he is pictured standing alongside (right of the triptych). This is a cabinet of the remains of American made weapons that have been fired at worshippers on the site. I couldn’t help but catch a hint of irony in his voice as he described America as “the king of democracy”. The other “insult” was a corner of the Mosque that the Crusaders turned into a church in the twelfth century.
Our Muslim colleagues described a sense of deep sadness that this holy site has become a source of deep dispute. To them it would seem most fitting that all faiths were free to worship here. But in an Israeli State that is so fearful for its own existence and future it looks for now as if mistrust is the dominant force.