Israel is sovereign in Jerusalem and is therefore responsible for freedom of religion there. But there are different ways of looking at the situation. According to Biblical history, Israel was the first to rule Mount Moriah. Later, Judaism gave birth to Christianity and Islam. As the firstborn and rightful ruler of Zion, Israel is probably more concerned with establishing true rest on God’s holy mountain. When her offspring, Christians and Muslims, ruled the city, they did not grant others true freedom of religion, as Israel offers Muslims and Christians today. Despite all the dangers in doing so. So the regular complaints of Muslims and Church fathers about Israel violating this or that small aspect of religious freedom need to be taken with a grain of salt.
The storm and massive flooding in the desert are behind us. It got warm again, the sun was shining and the fourth Friday of Ramadan was relatively quiet atop the Temple Mount. About 200,000 Muslims gathered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and 2,000 Israeli police officers were on standby. Sunset, Shabbat has begun. The next day, on Saturday, thousands of Orthodox Christians celebrated the so-called “Holy Fire” in Jerusalem. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that the Holy Fire at Jesus’ tomb miraculously self-ignites and represents the power of resurrection. The Orthodox followers take this fire with them on the plane to their congregations, including to Russia and Ukraine.
Saturday morning. People streamed through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As is often the case when I have a day off, I sat with my friends in the Abu Seir patisserie in an alley by the New Gate. On Saturday mornings, it’s mostly Israeli Jews sitting there, jogging in the Old City and later enjoying a coffee and small, colorful baked goods in peace and quiet. We too sat between them, but we all forgot that this Saturday, before the beginning of Orthodox Easter, thousands of Christians light their candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Orthodox Christians dressed in black raced past our Arabic patisserie, some of them sweating profusely so as not to miss the fire.
And like every year, there were fights at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This time the Muslims were not in the ring, but Christians who wanted to light their candles. But for security reasons, the Israeli police, in consultation with Church officials, limited the number of participants. Israel had approved 1,800 Christians in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Church leaders earlier this week claimed Israeli police were unnecessarily restricting Christians’ religious freedom, a letter from the Church says the restrictions on the ceremony were imposed at the request of a Greek Orthodox official. In public, the Fathers of the Church often say things that have nothing to do with the truth. Israel is very wary of casualties at mass gatherings, especially after the tragedy of Lag Ba’Omer in 2021, when 45 religious Jews were killed during a stampede atop Mount Meron.
Under Jewish rule in Jerusalem, the other religions have more freedom than at any other time in history. Even Arabs in the patisserie admit this. It’s true, we tend to avoid politics in our conversations, but we still fall into the trap once in a while. And so we discussed history a little yesterday. In a way, everyone, Muslim and Christian, understands that their faith grew out of the Bible. What they made of it is another topic. Whether or not they love their Jewish brother or cousin is also another issue. But the fact is that in this generation Jews are again ruling on the mountain of God in Jerusalem. Of course, that upsets a lot of people, but when I look at the people around me in Jerusalem’s Old City, I feel content, even if they have criticism of Israel’s government. So what, we also have our criticism and complain.
Easter, the Jewish Passover festival and the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, fell at the same time this year. After violent clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinians on the Temple Mount last week, the security situation in the region had further deteriorated. Rockets were fired at Israel along the borders of Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And now there was a riot in the Old City with the Christians too, just because the Israeli police didn’t let everyone into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to light their candles there. The Israeli police must create calm among Christians and Muslims, but also among Jews. Yesterday evening police officers confronted Jewish demonstrators in Jerusalem, but also in Tel Aviv and other major cities, who continue to demonstrate at full throttle against the government’s judicial reform. Jerusalem is in dire need of some rest, especially our police officers.
We desperately need peace within the walls of Jerusalem and quiet in our palaces. A prayer of King David, relevant in our day:
“Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up—the tribes of the Lord—to praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel. There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.” (Psalm 122)
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