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06/27/2012

Religion in the Holy Land

Understanding what I do about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the journey to Jerusalem, a city which holds great significance for all three, has been very important to me for a long time.  I have learned much about the history and religious meaning of all the holy sites around Jerusalem, but I would like to focus on the deeper picture which you can really only see from walking through the streets and meeting the people of this wonderful city.  

Our tour guide Yahav told us of a very interesting poem as we were entering the city.  It is by Yehuda Amichai and it's called "Tourists".  An excerpt translated to English says:

"Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. 'You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.' 'But he’s moving, he’s moving!'
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'”

I couldn't stop thinking about this poem as we made our way through the Old City.  From al-Aqsa Mosque through the stations of the cross to the Western Wall and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I was constantly forcing myself to remember what the true soul of Jerusalem was in the midst of all these grand displays: the people.  

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem was an experience unlike any I have had before.  From all over the world, people make pilgrimages to pray at the holy places which are the roots of their faith.  It is truly beautiful to see so many people gathered in one place in the hopes of gaining a deeper connection to the force which governs their beliefs.  

It is easy to see why Jerusalem has been the focal point of conflict for so many years.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone has eight different branches of Orthodox and Catholics who are in a constant struggle for control of each and every staircase and window.  Having three separate religions tied to one space makes things that much more complicated.  However, when you visit the Temple Mount, arguably one of the most hotly contested areas in the world, there is a sense of complete calm.  If you didn't know about the conflict, you would have no idea that one existed at all.  Throughout the city, Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexist very peacefully despite the fact that many outsiders believe these peoples are constantly gripped by religious tensions.  

One of the few real conclusions that I have been able to reach through the complexity of this conflict is that it is not a religious battle.  People tend to reduce it to that because it's easy and it makes sense, but if you ask anyone on the ground, they will tell you that it is not the case.  Despite the fact that religious extremists on every side tend to make matters worse, they are not the focal point of the conflict.  Witnessing this reality first hand has been a very powerful experience for me.

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Despite the fact that religious extremists on every side tend to make matters worse, they are not the focal point of the conflict. Witnessing this reality first hand has been a very powerful experience for me.

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