Monday, August 7, 2017

We Need More Peace, Fewer Sacred Spaces

It’s hard to imagine religion without sacred spaces.

These sacred spaces can be hills, mountains, rivers, caves, cities, trees and buildings—temples, mosques, cathedrals, and other places of worship.

For believers, these places are sacred because something religiously significant happened there, usually hundreds or thousands of years ago. 

Visiting these places is an opportunity to draw closer to God or the divine, to find inner peace and fulfilment, or to experience something deep and supernatural.

For others, however, they are reasons to fight and kill. Instead of promoting peace, they are sources of conflict.

That’s what’s happening now in Jerusalem, over the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is located on what Jews call the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—and what Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was carried on a flying horse from Mecca to Al-Aqsa during his miraculous night journey. While there, he prayed with Abraham and Jesus on the rock that is now said to be inside the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

For Jews, it is the site of the first temple, built around 1,000 B.C. It was destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. In the first century B.C., a second temple was built; it, too, was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

Over the past 50 years, the site has been a source of tension between Palestinians and Israelis. It is said the Second Intifada, which saw over 4,000 people killed, was sparked by a visit to the mosque by Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel.

This summer, the site has been the source of unrest and conflict after Israeli authorities restricted Muslim access to the mosque following the murders of two Israeli police officers. In response, Palestinians gathered to pray, and protest—mostly peacefully—in the streets surrounding the area.

Of course, the conflict is over more than what people believe happened on the site centuries ago. Israelis view it as a matter of security and safety, while Palestinians see it as part of the larger effort to control and humiliate them.

Both sides can justify their actions. But I still wonder: Are these principles worth killing and dying over? I posed that question to a Palestinian friend.

He agreed that any deaths arising from the unrest were terrible, but said answers are “not so easy when everything has been taken away from you.”

He noted that, over the centuries, Palestinians have welcomed and incorporated people from many nationalities and faiths—Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Greeks, and Jews, among others.

“Those who came as pilgrims and refugees, found space on the land. But an occupation is a different story.”

This is indeed a different story, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Al-Aqsa mosque today stands for much more than a holy place. Both sides, each for their own political reasons, seem to be looking for more confrontation rather than calm.

(And lest Christians think they are above this sort of controversy, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves otherwise. The Church, which is said to contain the tomb of Jesus, is administered by six Christian groups under a centuries-old agreement. They squabble constantly over who is responsible for what part of the church, sometimes resulting in fist fights between monks. So bad are the relations between them they don’t even trust each other with the church keys; a Muslim family opens and closes the church each day.)

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

In chapter 66:1-2, God says through the prophet: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? 

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine. But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”

I don’t know about you, but I think the world would be better off if we had more of those kinds of people today, and maybe fewer sacred spaces.

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