When people first discovered I was coming to Jerusalem, many were excited but also expressed their concerns as this is a very heated location of the world right now. While I know that this is true, my experience has not included any of that animosity. Not once have I felt concerned for my safety in Jerusalem. In fact, all the people have been just wonderful and welcoming.
There is a certain irony regarding the conflict, considering the whole reason the city of Jerusalem is so sacred is because of Jesus Christ: The Prince of Peace. While peace is perhaps the last word that most would think of when they hear “Jerusalem,” there is still plenty of peace to be found. Against what popular media would lead the public to believe, there are actually significantly more cases of peace than conflict here, and I have been lucky enough to witness this in just a weeks time.
One of the most Holy locations to Christians in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is one of two potential locations for Christ’s crucifixion and proceeding burial and resurrection. Naturally, this causes some conflict of ownership as there are many different sects of Christianity. Since its construction in the fourth century by Constantine, it has been hotly contested who has the right to the church. In 1853, though, an agreement was reached that is referred to as the “Status Quo.” The church was split into five different sections—one for each sect with a claim—and each sect was given chores and responsibilities around the building and to emphasize that no sect has more power than another, the keys to the building itself are held by a local Muslim family who unlocks and locks the church every day. Walking around the church is a quite unique experience. It is a large circle with the Sepulcher in a large room in the center. Each sect has their own chapel along the hallway and the difference of feeling as they pass is fascinating. Each sect worships the same thing so differently but they are all still rejoicing. While there is a different feel walking between chapels, when in the room of the Sepulcher there is a definite sense of unity and celebration, which is beautiful.
Some may be thinking that getting along may be easier when the religions are all Christian and have limited differences. Perhaps this is true, but interfaith cooperation is still very prominent in the Holy Land. Every Monday at the Jerusalem Center where I am studying we go on a field trip. This past Monday we focused on the geography of the land and went to many different lookout points. The last one was a location called Nabi-Samwil: a fascinating fortress from Crusaders time that was later thought to be the location of the prophet Samuel’s death (Nabi-Samwil translates to “the Prophet Samuel” in Arabic). After the Crusaders left the fortress, Saladin (a Muslim Ottoman emperor) transformed the building into a mosque for Muslim worship. Then, after the 1967 War, a Jewish synagogue was placed in the same building, both in full use at the same time. The site is now a national park and archaeological site in Jerusalem so the mosque is not official anymore as non-Muslims cannot enter a mosque and it keep its meaning. However, when we explored this building there was a Muslim man who was kneeling facing Mecca and singing his prayers in Arabic, his voice echoing off the walls to fill the room. We could still hear him as we walked through a door into the Jewish area. Here we saw men and women (separated) reading from their prayer books and kissing what is called a cenotaph (a memorial marker to someone who has died) dedicated to the prophet Samuel, who is holy to both Muslims and Jews. The juxtaposition of these two faiths that are portrayed as enemies was stunning. While there wasn’t interaction between the two, there is a sense of mutual respect and understanding that is very important and inspiring.
Cooperation and respect are not limited to these two sites. There are many cases like this across the city. The whole area itself is a mix of different cultures. The Old City is split up into four quarters (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian) yet it is not a hostile divide. It is simply them living with the people that they belong to, but there is still friendly interaction between the groups. If not this far, there is at least a sense of respect within the walls of the Old City. It is not a perfect system, but the point is that peace and acceptance are far more common than the hope for destruction.
I believe in peace.