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The Jewish, Christian and Islamic contests over Jerusalem

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Added 20th April 2018 11:23 AM

Politicians of all persuasions, religious leaders from all kinds of traditions and numerous scholars from a number academic fields have done case studies and forwarded theories about Jerusalem but none has succeeded to offer lasting practical solutions to the Jerusalem impasse

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Politicians of all persuasions, religious leaders from all kinds of traditions and numerous scholars from a number academic fields have done case studies and forwarded theories about Jerusalem but none has succeeded to offer lasting practical solutions to the Jerusalem impasse

Fr. Dr. Ambrose J. Bwangatto

A lot has been written about the Holy city of Jerusalem and it has been described by many people using all kinds of images. For the Jewish people, Jerusalem is the eternal capital city of the State of Israel and US President Donald Trump just acknowledged a reality that the whole human race failed to perceive for so long.

But for the Palestinian people the Eastern part of Jerusalem is the future capital city of the state of Palestine and this is their official position. Some people consider Jerusalem as the navel of the earth, but pessimists have described it as a powder keg! Jerusalem overflows with Holiness, but at the same time, contention and conflicts and at worst violent wars also blend with its holiness and this, for many scholars have concluded that Jerusalem is one of the classic divided cities, contested by peoples, separated by ethnicity, nationality, language and religion. It is difficult for a foreigner to comprehend the complexity of the situation of Jerusalem and the innumerable claims laid upon it by various peoples and communities.

I have had an opportunity to travel, stay and study in Jerusalem for seven weeks, courtesy of the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem and the Uganda Joint Christian Council.  During this time, I have had first-hand experience of life in Jerusalem by visiting almost all the important sites of Jerusalem but above all have attended many lectures from leading Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars and religious leaders. Everyone who speaks about Jerusalem is informed by a particular narrative, which influences his/her language, history and stories and presents a particular position of Jerusalem. The most baffling experience is that in Jerusalem, holiness and violence coexist and blend! In fact, Jerusalem is a city that is profoundly contested, but there are some specific spaces which are gravely contested and the narrative surrounding these places may be confusing to a foreigner. I hereby outline the five most disputed sites in Jerusalem:

1.The Temple Mount

This broad platform in Jerusalem’s Old City is said to have hosted an almost unimaginable series of sacred events. The Jewish rabbinic sages say that God gathered dust from this spot to create Adam, the first man, before setting him loose in the Garden of Eden.

The Jewish tradition holds that the Temple Mount also contains Mount Moriah, where Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, is said to have nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, under God’s orders, before an angel intervened. Later, Solomon constructed the first Jewish Temple on the Mount, including the Holy of Holies, a room that kept the Ark of the Covenant, which was said to contain the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments.

Only the Jewish High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, where tradition holds he met with God on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Rabbis say that Jews are still forbidden to step on the Temple Mount, for fear of intruding on the Holy of Holies. The Temple was destroyed twice, first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then by the Romans in 70 AD. Religious Jews pray the Third Temple will be built by the Messiah himself.

Since 1967, the Temple Mount has been an almost constant source of tension because it is also home to the third most Holy Mosque in Islam.

2.Haram al-Sharif

Muslims call the Temple Mount “Haram al-Sharif” (the Noble Sanctuary), and it is home to one of the most sacred sites in Islam: the al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was carried on a flying horse from Mecca to al-Aqsa in Jerusalem during his miraculous Night Journey.

According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad took a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and he reached the rock on which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac.  From the same rock, he ascended into heaven where he led Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayers as the last of God’s prophets and he got instructions to pray the five times a day. Currently, that rock sits in the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof gleams above the Old City skyline. Since its construction in the seventh century, the Haram al-Sharif, now controlled by an Islamic trust, has been an almost constant source of tension between Muslims and Jews.

It is reported that in the 1980s, some Jewish radicals plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, believing that it would lead to a spiritual revolution and usher in the Messiah. In the year 2000, the beginning of the Second Intifada, that is, a five-year-long Palestinian uprising, was sparked, by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the compound of al-Aqsa, who was a candidate contesting for Israeli Prime Minister. Sharon insisted that his visit was not intended to provoke Palestinians, but many saw it as an attempt to underline Israel’s claim to Jerusalem’s holy sites. This is the only space that Muslims have full control and there are claims that if they lose it, their claim over JERUSALEM would be forever gone.

3.The Western Wall

Israeli soldiers wept when they saw the Western Wall in 1967, after seizing East Jerusalem from Jordan. And they claimed that: “We have returned to our most holy places; we have returned and we shall never leave them.” Located at the foot of the Temple Mount, the 62-foot-tall stone wall once supported the courtyard of the ancient Temple, the centre of Jewish spiritual life for centuries. For Jews, the wall is one of the last remaining links to that time, and they gather before it to hold religious services, to pray or to slip notes into its cracks.

There’s a tradition that notes put in the wall are like notes transmitted to heaven, since this is as close as Jews were able for generations to get to the Temple Mount where they believed God dwelt on earth. 

How close Jews get, and which kind of Jews, has been a subject of fierce debate in recent years. The praying area is divided into men’s and women’s sections, and ultra-Orthodox men have hurled chairs at women who sing and pray at the wall or try to enter the men’s section, accusing them of violating Jewish law. In response, a group called Women of the Wall launched a highly publicised protest campaign to win the right to wear prayer shawls, lead prayers and read collectively from the Torah at the holy site.

4.The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In the fourth century, after converting to Christianity, Emperor Constantine launched what historians call “one of the first recorded archaeological excavations in history”. He was looking for Jesus’ tomb and thought he found it in Jerusalem. Constantine asked his mother Hellena, to oversee the construction of a magnificent church on the site. Originally called the Church of Resurrection, it was destroyed by a Muslim caliph in 1009, but later Muslim leaders allowed Christians to rebuild the Church.

Now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is believed by many Christians to house a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, his tomb and the site of his resurrection. Under a centuries-old agreement, the church is shared by six Christian communities, but they quarrel over every stone, sometimes coming to blows over perceived slights.

In 2008, for example, Israeli riot police broke up a fight between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks. Ethiopian monks reportedly sneaked into the church’s rooftop monastery during Easter prayers in 1970 and changed the locks, evicting its former owners, the Copts. The six Christian communities at the Holy Sepulchre don’t even trust each other with the church keys. A Muslim family has held the keys, opening the church every morning and closing it every night since the 12th century.

5.The Garden Tomb

Not all Christians believe that Jesus was buried and rose again at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the 19th century, doubts crept in about Constantine’s site! In 1867, British Christians unearthed what they believe was the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, outside the Old City's Damascus Gate, where they believe Jesus was entombed. The Gospel of John says Jesus’ tomb was near a garden, and the British Christians who run the Garden Tomb say their site matches the Bible’s descriptions perfectly.

The tomb is carved from solid rock, it sits near an escarpment that looks like a skull (Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, means “place of the skull,”) and most importantly, they say, the tomb is empty, signifying a resurrected Jesus. But the real point is that Protestants came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 19th century and were appalled that it was an Orthodox Church. The icons and incense were apparently too much for Protestants and their austere sensibilities. So, they found an alternative to cater for their own religious sentiments, but by doing so, they contributed to the contest in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

All the above point to the complex, blurred and perplexing status of the City and Land of Jerusalem. There is an apparent gridlock over Jerusalem to the extent that the prevailing discourses about this metropolis have produced nothing but uncertainty and lethargic efforts to work for the peace of Jerusalem. The perpetual conflict between the Jewish people and the Arab Palestinians both Muslims and Christians has exacerbated the situation because of the absolute claims over this holy city by the conflicting forces both political and religious.

Politicians of all persuasions, religious leaders from all kinds of traditions and numerous scholars from a number academic fields have done case studies and forwarded theories about Jerusalem but none has succeeded to offer lasting practical solutions to the Jerusalem impasse. My only consolation is the constant prayer in Psalm 122:6: Pray for The Peace of Jerusalem.

The writer is a philosophy and theology lecturer and academic prefect at St. Mbaaga Major Seminary, Ggaba.


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