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Church of the NativityA strange thing occurred in Bethlehem last Saturday: at the entrance to the Nativity Church a group calling itself ‘Dar assalam for introducing Islam’ was handing out free copies of the Quran and other books on Islam. There are two things that are unnerving: first, there is a mosque on the other side of Manger Square, and second, why does Islam need introduction in this particular part of the world? Tensions almost never cease to be high in Israel or the Palestinian Territories, however the remaining Christians could live in relative peace the past years. To the law, they are as mobile and free as their Palestinian countrymen. However, I cannot see this handing out of books in front of one of the most important and oldest churches in the world as nothing short of a provocation. I received comments from Bethlehem that ‘no Christian dares to hand out the Bible in front of a mosque’, and no official institution has commented on the matter since. It is not clear what the true purpose of this organization is, nor what it’s affiliations are. The pictures and texts on their FaceBook page (see link below) don’t seem provocative on first sight, but bear in mind the fragile position of Christians in the Middle East. Some fundamentalist are more subtle than others, but not less dangerous.

Of the 26.000 inhabitants of Bethlehem, some 4.000 are Christian. They are not only the caretakers of various important religious sites, but also the indigenous inhabitants of these lands. Christianity was born here, well before the Arabian conquest of the area. Ever since the first ‘introductions’ of Islam the Christians learned to cope with the constant fear for their safety and freedoms. Whether good or bad will come out of this book sharing organization remains to be seen. However, the West should always consider the religious freedoms of Christians when dealing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, especially when the local authorities turn a blind eye.

Main source (in Arabic and with pictures): http://www.calam1.org/a/11159/

Update: signs have been posted by this and other organizations in places like Nazareth. The texts are not pro-Islam in nature, but more anti-Christian. See or

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Expectations. I never travel with high ones but I thought I would leave the way of the Tourist to become a Pilgrim in Jerusalem. Almost nothing less is true. I tried to find spirituality in the Via Dolorosa (contains 9 of the 14 stations of the Cross), the tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (last 5 stations) and various other places, but it was hard. Only in the last two days I felt the meaning of this place. One moment was in the church of he Holy Sepulchre where we celebrated holy mass with the bishop and a small part of Jerusalem’s Syrian Orthodox congregation in the tiny church of St Nicodemus. It truly is special singing from the fankitho about the crucifixition and resurrection while you are standing at the very place it took place (also the grave of Joseph of Arimathea is only two meters away from the altar). Hearing and singing the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic together with forty voices in the small cave that is our church warmed the heart, spirit and soul.
This morning it was only me with the two monks at St Mark’s church. Their solemn prayers made me finally feel at rest. The weariness of walking, talking and haggling washed away and only the good memories remained.

Bethlehem was something else. The surreal experience of passing through the wall on foot (first words that came to mind: scary, desolate, prison) made a big impression, the hustle downtown a couple of minutes later makes you forget such a thing exists. But it does has a profound influence on the lives of people in the West Bank, something the majority does not deserve I believe. With a dear friend I visited the church of the Nativity, the church of the milk grotto, had falafel at Dawood and later passed by shepherd’s field (which could have been any field in the vicinity, but still three different denominations claim a part of a tree-lined area). Here I also felt a sense of belonging, not in the least part due to a belly full of maqloobe, labaneh, figs and knafeh. The warmth of a Syriac home or church can never be cooled off by a wall, government or war.

Where Turkey felt like a home without a ‘welcome’ doormat, I think that I have fallen in love with this country. It has its downsides too, I saw two beat up women in the streets of the Old City, I saw a wall that should not exist and I saw the greed in the people’s eyes and their actions. The peace in Jerusalem floats on a cork made of money and a strong military presence. There is more respect for a full wallet than the religion of the other. I do not think a pilgrimage by air, airconditioned and WiFi fitted buses and greedy taxi drivers is the way to find Christ nor your inner self. The nature of cities is that they grow with the needs of their people and visitors. As a city councillor, I know these needs and expectations can interfere with each other. Where I took the cable car to Qarantul on the Mountain of Temptation in Jericho, which has charms of its own but still, I would have rather walked up there. Where I entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a photo camera, and I did take some nice pictures, I should have done so with a bible in hand. And where I spend most of my time in and around the Old City visiting various biblical sites, I wish that I had spent more time with my new friends who took me in their home and showed me around.

‘Why are you leaving so soon?’ Raban Shemun asked me yesterday. ‘I got a taste of this place, and I am no satiated yet.’ Shalom, toda, Shlomo and taudi. It has been a terrific journey.

On a side note:
– Celebrating mass at the tomb of the Virgin Mary is something special. ‘Celebration’ is not the right word though, it is a yelling contest between the Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox as they pray at their respective altars at the same time. The Copts have their own altar but are with even less people than the Syrian Orthodox.
– Mor Severius, the bishop of Israel and Jordan has a great sense of humor, and loves to share funny youtube videos.
– Raban Shemun is an old, gentle and peaceful man. He knows almost all residing clergymen in the Old City and they all stop to greet him. But when walking to church, it takes a pair of very good legs to keep pace with him. Thankfully he stops for a short prayer at each station of the Cross.
– Lines at check-in counters and security gates tend to be long due to a lot of baby carts, that’s why there are no lines at food courts, bars or fast food restaurants. You just fight your way up front, place your order and wait until someone shouts your name.

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