Monday, September 28, 2009

Sharing Holy Places (Or, My Astounding Cultural Arrogance)

On Sunday, violence erupted once again at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. This place is home to the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine that covers the place where Mohammad ascended to heaven to meet with God and the prophets, and the al Aqsa ("Farthest") Mosque, which Mohammad flew to from Mecca on his Night Journey. It is the third holiest place in Islam. It is also (no matter what the Palestinian leadership says) the site of both former Jewish temples, the holy of holies, where God dwelled with his people for centuries, and according to tradition, the place where God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism.

As you can imagine, it's often a little contentious there.

It is the dream of some religious Jews to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Muslims say: ain't gonna happen. Some Jews go there to worship occasionally anyway. And that's where the trouble started on Sunday.

It began when a group of 15 Jews tried to enter the al Asqa Mosque to pray. According to Reuters, "The Jews never managed to get into the complex, because several hundred Palestinians, who were on alert for such a possibility, began a loud protest." (You can usually pick out Jews because of the kippahs Orthodox men wear on their heads.)

You know the drill. Israeli police broke out tear gas and stun grenades. Palestinians threw rocks and chairs. 17 police officers and 13 Palestinians were hurt, though none seriously, il-hamdulillah.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused the Israeli government of "deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem" by "providing a police escort for settlers [How does one, at a glance, tell the settlers from ordinary Jews, I wonder?] who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction." He also darkly warned, "We've seen this before, and we know what the consequences are." Yes, we certainly do. In 2000, then-Knesset member Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount, and Palestinians responded with the second intifada, a wave of protest and rioting that quickly evolved into a campaign of suicide terrorism and all-out war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

As I read this story, I can't help but think of my first Friday in the Middle East. All of us students on the MESP program visited an open-air mosque in Cairo a few blocks away from our flats. The girls in our group donned hijabs (head coverings) and headed to the women's section of the mosque, and all the guys headed to the men's section. We took off our shoes and sat at the very back of the mosque area, trying to stay out of the way of the men coming in for worship. We were only there to get the experience, to respectfully observe. But when the cleric finished his sermon (which I didn't get much out of, since it was in Arabic), and all the men lined up for prayer, a young man standing in front of us turned around and motioned for us to join in. And we did. We had no idea what we were doing of course - Muslim prayer involves a sequence of bowing that looks complicated at first - but we followed along as best we could. It was a great experience.

I later found out that Muslims are supposed to wash their hands and feet before every prayer. We definitely didn't do that. The Muslim men who invited us to join in their prayer must have been able to tell. In fact, it was probably blindingly obvious to them that we were white, Christian American infidels, who "blasphemed God" by worshipping a man as God. Nevertheless, they welcomed us, not only to watch, but to participate, in their worship.

I later went to the same mosque to participate in the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I had fasted for that day, but certainly not for the rest of the month. Yet they welcomed me and my friends again, and even had us participate in the Qur'an recitation contests. (We handed out the prizes.)

Incidentally, I also visited the Noble Sanctuary last fall, and had no problems. I was not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock or the al Aqsa Mosque, however. In Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter. It seems the holier a place is, the less willing Muslims are to share it.

I have read that when the Muslims first conquered Jerusalem, the second Muslim caliph, Omar, refused to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, telling the Christians, "If I had prayed in the church it would have been lost to you, for the Believers would have taken it saying: Omar prayed here."

Why does Mecca, or the Noble Sanctuary, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where there are still yearly fights between the six denominations who control it) have to be lost to anybody? Somebody must control it, to be sure. (Otherwise who will handle the upkeep?) And the Jews probably never will get their Temple back. The global vote on this one is a thousand million to fourteen million. But why can't they worship at their Temple Mount?

Really, I'm just being selfish. In addition to North Korea and Iran, I want to go the Mecca someday.

ALSO: As I was writing this, my friend Zach called me.  He goes to the University of Minnesota.  He showed up for class today, and there was a note on the door: "Class is canceled for Yom Kippur."

Happy Jewish Day of Atonement, everybody!

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