United Brethren has retired.

Jerusalem, holy?

Jerusalem is one of the unholiest cities on earth. Perhaps it is a problem of definition, as did not God (surely the holiest of all) call himself a God of War?. If holy is a synonym for "peaceful" then Jerusalem is deepest, darkest Sheol. All three religions that call this place home have a sorry tale to tell. For the Christian, Jerusalem celebrates (if that is the right word) the awful treatment handed out to Jesus. Pilgrims tread the Via Dolorosa, imagining where Jesus was flogged, where he fell, where he was crucified. For Jews the Wailing Wall is a memorial to a Temple destroyed by foreign conquerors. Muslims do not come out unscathed either - the Dome of the Rock reminds all of Islamic conquest and Christian crusade. On the beautiful yellow rock of Jerusalem has stood the red blood of countless martyrs, each seeking their eternal place in the Holy City.

A coffee shop in the Muslim Quarter that we often frequent stands beneath a house which Ariel Sharon bought, not because he wanted to live there, but because he believed that a Jew ought to be able to own a house anywhere in Israel. A huge Israeli flag hangs from it. In the streets below, Arab vendors sell maps of the Middle East that simply deny the existence of Israel, with what we know as Israel and the Occupied Territories labelled "Palestine". It is wishful thinking and more than a little pathetic. What is most sad is that the Intifada has created losers on all sides. Speak to enough Jews and you will meet someone who knows someone who has been blown up by suicide bombers. All of us who live here have to put up with security checks in shops and cafes and a constant worry that the bus you see driving down the road might explode. Many Arabs here live in squalor, and the Security Fence (which you can see in the distance) is going to cause more hardship. Added to all of this, there are no tourist dollars to soften the blow.

There is a measure of peace to be found here, though. There is an undeniable power to some of the sites, holy or not. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a gaudy mess and the home of petty squabbles between Catholics, Greeks and Armenians. But to touch the slab of Christ's burial is to repeat an act that pilgrims have done for centuries and the sense of history and humanity is palpable. Nevermind whether it is the real tomb. That is hardly important. If Jerusalem does have holy sites for the visiting Christian, it is perhaps those places unencumbered by churches. The Garden Tomb and the Garden of Gethsemane, both open to the air, are beautiful and (dare I say it) holy. So, contrary to what I said at the beginning, there is holiness here but it is difficult to find, making Jerusalem a striking microcosm of human existence.

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