In less than one square mile in Jerusalem’s old city are holy places central to the world’s three monotheistic religions. The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, is just below the Aksa Mosque, venerated in Islam. Nearby is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried.
In recent weeks there has been an increase in politically motivated attacks on holy places. Last month, a historic Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion was vandalized, with stone crosses that were on top of graves cut off and hacked into pieces. Jews have been attacked at the nearby Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Muslim mosques near Jerusalem have been attacked with graffiti in so-called “price tag attacks”, in which the vandals, usually young extremist Israelis, say they will exact a “price” each time the Israeli government makes a concession to Palestinians.
Clerics and others involved in religious dialogue throughout Israel say they want to cooperate to try to stop all attacks on holy places. At a conference sponsored by Search for Common Ground, an organization that works for “conflict transformation” clerics signed a Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites.
“Holy sites shall be preserved for present and future generations, with dignity, integrity and respect for their name and identity,” the code says. “They shall not be desecrated or damaged, nor shall religious communities be forcibly deprived of their holy sites.”
In cases where a site is sacred to more than one religious community, an arrangement in which “adherents of each community are ensured access to the site for religious purposes and preservation of the site is the equal responsibility of the religious communities concerned,” must be implemented.
Participants at a recent conference sponsored by Search for Common Ground agreed that more needs to be done to preserve holy sites.
“This is a wonderful day with a meeting of minds of the different faiths in our wonderful country,” outgoing deputy mayor Naomi Tsur told The Media Line. “But when we’re talking about holy places in a holy land we have to remember that we’re a pilgrim city and a pilgrim country. How we conduct ourselves and our holy places in Israel has implications for all over the world and the faith communities for people all over the world who see Jerusalem as an important spiritual destination.”
Tsur has launched a movement for “green pilgrimage”, meaning encouraging religious tourism in an environmentally friendly way.
“The slogan of green pilgrimage – love “our” city and we break down the “our” into openness, understanding and respect. We have to learn to share the reverence that other people have toward their holy places but we also have to have physical respect, meaning we can’t throw our garbage on the ground or pollute or make too much noise.”
Religious sites have frequently been the site of clashes. Palestinians say it was then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site that Jews call the Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif that sparked the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising that eventually left some 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis dead. Jews visiting the Western Wall for Jewish holidays complain that Palestinians throw stones at them. Palestinians complain that growing numbers of Jews are visiting the Aksa Mosque, which is controlled by the Muslim Waqf, and trying to circumvent a ban against Jewish prayer at the site.
While the overwhelming majority of Israel’s population is Jewish, Israel has a significant non-Jewish minority. Just over one-fifth of Israelis are Arab citizens, most of them Muslim, although about 120,000 are Christian and a similar number are Druze, an off-shoot of Islam.
Israeli officials say they are working hard to inculcate respect for all religions.
Nizar Khatib, the head of the Department for Non-Jews in Israel’s Interior Ministry, says non-Jewish clerics make frequent visits to Israeli Jewish schools to teach about Israel’s religious minorities.
“We represent Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bahai, Ahmedim, and Circassians,” Khatib, who is Druze, told The Media Line. “We go together to the schools and it gives students a message that we all live together in the state of Israel.”
There is also a growing move for religious dialogue. Elana Rozenman has founded an organization called Trust-Emun that brings together Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Druze women.
“Women are the educators of our young,” she told The Media Line. “All of the women I work with women share the same values. They want their children to respect other people and they want their children to be respected. They honor each other and each other’s religion.”
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