I have never been much interested in the idea of holy places. I do not yearn to visit Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and I do not think such a visit would improve my understanding of Jesus. Nevertheless, I must confess there is one place I do love to go to and pray at: the tomb of St. Bede the Venerable in Durham Cathedral, England. I feel I know Bede, because he wrote (in Latin) a beautiful book called Ecclesiastical History of England (sometimes translated as The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or History of the English Church and People). He was a monk in Jarrow, northern England, in the 8th century. He was a good historian, careful to check his facts, and a good Christian: his work is suffused with humility and love for his brethren. So I do have some empathy with those who regard the holy places of their religion to be of great importance. And chief among such places are those sites in the Holy Land of Palestine, which are sacred to the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Victorian times, two gentlemen visited Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but interpreted what they saw in different ways.
From The Journals of Herman Melville(January, 1857)
Mosque of Omar– Solomon’s Temple. Here the wall of Omar rises upon the foundation stones of Solomon, triumphing over that which sustains it, an emblem of the Moslem religion, which at once spurns that deeper faith which fathered it & preceded it. &c.
from Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad(1869)
Every where about the Mosque of Omar are portions of pillars, curiously wrought altars, and fragments of elegantly carved marble–precious remains of Solomon’s Temple. These have been dug from all depths in the soil and rubbish of Mount Moriah, and the Moslems have always shown a disposition to preserve them with the utmost care….. The designs wrought upon these fragments are all quaint and peculiar, and so the charm of novelty is added to the deep interest they naturally inspire. One meets with these venerable scraps at every turn, especially in the neighboring Mosque el Aksa, into whose inner walls a very large number of them are carefully built for preservation.
(Note: both writers have made the same mistake: what they call the Mosque of Omar is actually the Dome of the Rock. The Mosque of Omar is near the Church of the Sepulchre.) To Melville, Muslims spurn Judaism, and the presence of ancient Jewish stones in the building is meant to demonstrate the triumph of Islam over Judaism. To Twain, the careful discovery and preservation of the stones by Muslims shows respect for the ancient site. Twain is more likely to be right. Mohamed recognized the Jewish prophets, including Jesus, as his predecessors, and gave the honorific title ‘People of the Book’ to Jews and Christians, acknowledging that they had received a revelation from God. The Rock under the dome is said to be the one on which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac; it is the site of the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple; and also the place from which Mohamed ascended to heaven. It is a holy place to all three religions. By the way, there is an nice story about the actual Mosque of Omar, which illustrates mutual respect between Christian and Muslim leaders.
After the Siege of Jerusalem in 637 by the Rashidun army under the command of Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, Patriarch Sophronius refused to surrender except to the Caliph Omar (579-644) himself. Omar traveled to Jerusalem and accepted the surrender. He then visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Sophronius invited him to pray inside the Church, but Omar declined so as not to set a precedent and thereby endanger the Church’s status as a Christian site. Instead he prayed outside in the courtyard, in a place where David was believed to have prayed.
I was recently reading the King-Crane report (full text) of the commission sent to Palestine in 1919 by President Wilson of the USA to investigate the opinions of its inhabitants about the British policy of establishing there a Jewish National Home. (Very negative, but that is another story.) It includes the following rather surprising paragraph (my emphasis):
With the best possible intentions, it may be doubted whether the Jews could possibly seem to either Christians or Moslems proper guardians of the holy places, or custodians of the Holy Land as a whole. The reason is this: the places which are most sacred to Christians-those having to do with Jesus-and which are also sacred to Moslems, are not only not sacred to Jews, but abhorrent to them. It is simply impossible, under those circumstances, for Moslems and Christians to feel satisfied to have these places in Jewish hands, or under the custody of Jews. There are still other places about which Moslems must have the same feeling. In fact, from this point of view, the Moslems, just because the sacred places of all three religions are sacred to them, have made very naturally much more satisfactory custodians of the holy places than the Jews could be.
This agrees with something else I have come across recently, the book Remembering and Imagining Palestine by Haim Greber, which concludes that:
As time progressed, the mixture of old memories and new imaginings created amongst the Palestinians a sense of preordained ethnic responsibility: they became conscious that they were elected by God to serve as guards of the holy sites of Jerusalem for the entire world of Islam.
Is it really true that Christian Holy places are abhorrent to Jews? Well, certainly not to all Jews, but it does seem that some Orthodox Jews in Israel are very hostile to Christian sites and the Christian clergy. A recent article in Foreign Policy Journal paints a rather horrifying picture of attacks and insulting behavior from 1948 onwards. Just a few extracts:
Monsignor Thomas MacMahon, secretary of the Catholic Near East Association of New York, wrote to the United Nations on August 20, 1948, “there have been constantly some violations and desecrations of Catholic holy places. The associated Press report of August 19, 1948 confirmed that Jewish forces perpetrated criminal acts against 12 Roman Catholic institutions in Northern Palestine… Seven churches, convents and hospitals have been looted by Jews and others seized by force.”
According to Father Pascal St. Jean, Superior of Our Lady of France Hostel, valuables were stolen, archives plundered, and “both chapels, were desecrated, figures of Christ unfastened from crosses and taken away. In the great chapel we came upon Jewish soldiers of both sexes dancing in the sanctuary to the music of the harmonium. Benches were taken outside and used for profane purposes. We have seen mattresses in the great chapel and Jewish soldiers have certainly been sleeping there. I protest against these acts in particular. They are sins committed on the premises of holy worship.”
Father Rezk of the Greek Orthodox Church, Jaffa, reported on August 4, 1956, “armed Jewish soldiers broke through the Church door. Chalices and sacred vases containing the Holy Host were stolen, along with other religious items. They threw away the icons of Jesus Christ and the holy Virgin in a garden next door.”
When Zionist forces occupied Jerusalem in 1967, Nancy Nolan, wife of Dr Abu Haydar of the American University Hospital of Beirut, witnessed Israeli soldiers and youths throwing stink bombs at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of St. Anne, whose crypt marks the birthplace of Mary, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were vandalized. The Warden of the Garden Tomb, Reverend S J Mattar, was shot, and shots were fired randomly into the Tomb in an attempt to kill the Warden’s wife. Jews went into the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, smoking, littering and bringing in dogs.
When Zionists seized Convents and Churches on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem in 1968, they looted gold and silver ornaments. An eyewitness account states that the interior of the Church of St. Saviour had its altar wrecked, and an altar painting destroyed. The valuable collection of church vestments was missing. Armenian and Greek Orthodox cemeteries were desecrated on Mt. Zion, including 14 tombs of Christian patriarchs. Practically every tomb at the Greek Orthodox cemetery was smashed. Likewise with the Catholic cemetery. The Very Reverend Father Andres, Procureua-General in the Holy Land, stated in an article in the Catholic journal, La Terra Sainte, March 1968, that “the Jews actually dragged the corpses out of the tombs and scattered the coffins and remains of the dead all around the cemetery.”
In 2011 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported: Clergymen in the Armenian Church in Jerusalem say they are victims of harassment, from senior cardinals to priesthood students; when they do complain, the police don’t usually find the perpetrators. Ultra-Orthodox young men curse and spit at Christian clergymen in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City as a matter of routine. In most cases the clergymen ignore the attacks, but sometimes they strike back.
Last week the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court quashed the indictment against an Armenian priesthood student who had punched the man who spat at him. Johannes Martarsian was walking in the Old City in May 2008 when a young ultra-Orthodox Jew spat at him. Maratersian punched the spitter in the face, making him bleed, and was charged for assault. But Judge Dov Pollock, who unexpectedly annulled the indictment, wrote in his verdict that “putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency.”
When Narek Garabedian came to Israel to study in the Armenian Seminary in Jerusalem half a year ago, he did not expect the insults, curses and spitting he would be subjected to daily by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the streets of the Old City.
The US State Department Report on Religious Freedom (2012) also criticizes Israel for its attitude to religious minorities.
Governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued. The government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law…. Since the state does not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or unrecognized religious authorities, many marriages must take place outside the country in order to be legally recognized. This provision restricts the ability of individuals to choose their own religious authorities and prevents several hundred thousand Israeli citizens from marrying within the country.
The government provides some resources for the upkeep of holy places of Muslims and all recognized religious communities, but provides significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places. The government also funds construction of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools are significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Public and private Arab schools offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, but state funding for such studies is proportionately less than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools.
Ministry of the Interior (MOI) officials continued to revoke citizenship or deny services (such as child registration, social benefits, identity cards, and passports) to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, according to the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ). This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs. According to the JIJ, on July 4 the MOI granted residency to a Holocaust survivor whom it previously had refused in May 2011 due to her profession of Messianic Jewish beliefs. There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
Relations between religious and ethnic groups, including between Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, and secular and religious Jews continued to be tense.
There were at least five incidents of vandalism of churches and monasteries in Jerusalem and Latroun during the year. Spray-painted graffiti of religious denigration marked them as “price tag” attacks conducted in retaliation for government actions to restrict settlement activity in the West Bank and designed to exact a “price” for actions settlers considered contrary to their interests. Officials quickly and publicly criticized the attacks and police opened investigations and made several arrests. There were no prosecutions as of the end of the year.
Messianic Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed regularly by Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity. During the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes to the police.
The Government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions during the year that impeded access to particular places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians.
The Israeli government’s strict closures and curfews hindered residents from practicing their religion at key holy sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Israeli authorities continued to limit visas for Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating their travel, particularly to areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem.
Again during the year, Israeli authorities severely limited the access of Palestinians to Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, but allowed relatively unimpeded access to Jewish visitors. The Government of Israel restricted access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by Muslims from Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli government provided Muslims from Gaza no opportunity to access the site.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify violence against Palestinian persons and property as necessary for the defense of Judaism. Some Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Islamic Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple. Some settlers continued to carry out “price tag” attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions that were contrary to settlers’ interests. These included acts of vandalism, arson, and anti-Muslim graffiti on mosques located primarily in the West Bank, as well as anti-Christian graffiti on churches in Jerusalem. There were no prosecutions in either case.
Some ultra-Orthodox youths in religious studies programs insulted and almost daily spat on Christian clergy, nuns, and seminarians in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Other relevant articles: Israel is not a liberal democracy.
Additional sources: Wikipedia pages Mosque of Omar (Jerusalem); Temple Mount; Dome of the Rock.
Last updated: September 18, 2014.