Every year, the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem welcomes thousands of Christian tour groups for communion services and devotional lectures in its beautiful and tranquil setting. Naturally, the crowds peak each spring around Resurrection Sunday. But one Easter service in particular has been bringing together an unusual mix of New Testament believers for the past 20 years.

On a late Saturday afternoon in April, some 500 local Arab and Jewish followers of Jesus came together once again for an annual gathering of reconciliation around Jesus’s empty tomb.

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The Garden Tomb does not claim to be the actual site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. But it does contain all the elements of those momentous events described in the Gospels, preserved in a remarkable natural setting.

There is a first-century Jewish tomb in which no one is buried. Nearby is a long-abandoned stone quarry – which also served as places of public execution 2,000 years ago. And there are a large, ancient water cistern and wine press on the grounds befitting of a grand vineyard owned by a wealthy man like Joseph of Arimathea.

So it is in this inspiring setting and on the distinct occasion of Resurrection celebrations that Jewish and Arab Christians have decided to assemble together to reach across the vast political divide created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and unite under the name of Jesus.

“This is the place we feel it’s most important for Christians from... the Holy Land to come together, the Jews and the Arabs,” said Dr. Munir Kakish, a Palestinian Arab pastor from Ramallah, during the recent gathering. “It’s one of the easiest ways to bring people together – the resurrected Jesus brings us together.”

The service was mostly in Arabic, with translation into Hebrew and English.

Arab Christians attended from eastern Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and other neighboring towns, while the Jewish believers came mainly from congregations in Jerusalem and Rehovot.

Located not far from bustling Damascus Gate, the well-tended garden is encircled by overhead walls which block out the noisy street life nearby. Local believers from both sides of the old dividing line come into the Garden Tomb and the separation is quickly gone. They exchange smiles and handshakes, share the same benches, and sing the same choruses.

The Jewish and Arab worshippers uniformly said they hope to demonstrate through their time of fellowship that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible.

“I come every year,” said Rajee from Bethlehem. “It’s good to be with various believers and worship with them. We come to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – it’s all that matters.”

A group of Arab pastors began the annual gathering some 20 years ago, and they were quickly joined by some of their Jewish counterparts. Asher Intrader, head of the Ahavat Yeshua congregation in Jerusalem, was one of the first Jewish leaders to join them.

“By bringing Jews and Arabs together, we show our unity,” said Intrader.

“You can’t bring unity by Abraham’s tomb, even though we’re all sons of Abraham,” he added. “Why? Because he’s in it! Only an empty tomb has the power to bring us together.”
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