This past week I spent several days in the Negev (the desert in the south of Israel). The flowers were blooming, and the baby camels were frolicking; it is lovely to be in the desert in spring.
Before heading south, I visited St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey in Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, one of the possible sites of Emmaus (Luke 24). The church here dates back to the Crusaders. When they lost the kingdom to Salah al-Din in 1187, the church was abandoned, but survived the centuries to be restored as a Benedictine community in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the way, however, the frescoes in the church were defaced (literally):
The defacing was most likely done long, long ago by aniconic Muslims (that is, Muslims who believe it is wrong to picture the human form in sacred art because it is idolatry—as in Judaism, and the icon wars of eighth century Christianity).
While I was in the church, I overheard an Israeli guide telling his American tour group that the defacing was a sign of Muslim contempt for other religions, and an indication that in Islam it is okay to disrespect the sacred space of Christianity or Judaism. The guide’s comments implied that Christianity and Judaism are different; that Christians and Jews would never do such a thing. But of course this implication is incorrect. That very day, in fact, Deir Rafat, a Christian monastery near Jerusalem, had been vandalized by Israeli settlers, all Jews (as reported here); mosques have also been graffiti-ed and damaged (see this report, or this one). Christians don’t have a better track record. Though the Church has not been blamed for any recent vandalism in Israel or Palestine (as far as I know), the Crusaders certainly did not respect the holy sites of the Muslims or Jews in Palestine, and in the States Christians have burned Qur’ans and damaged mosques (see here or here, for instance).
These examples of vandalism mark sacred space as contested space. Beyond vandalism, this contesting also happens through the taking over of sacred space: an ancient synagogue or Jewish memorial might have become a church when the Christians gained power in Roman Palestine; the church might have become a mosque when the Muslims took over; and that mosque might have become a synagogue again when the Israelis returned.
The Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif is precisely such a contested space. The Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans, who built a temple to Jupiter on the site in the second century; the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in the seventh and eighth centuries; the Crusaders took over the site and turned the Dome into a church; later the Muslims took it back, and today Israeli visits to the site are often understood as attempts to reclaim the space (as in this incident two weeks ago). Similar recycling has happened at the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, the Tomb of David on Mount Zion, the Mosque of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and numerous other sites. The current claimants of these spaces may limit or refuse access to others—an attempt to limit the holiness of the space to only one religious community.
The challenging of sacred space is (obviously) very political here. Laying claim to sacred space suggests the right of that particular community to be in the ‘holy’ land; denying access to those of other religious communities equally suggests that ‘they’ do not belong in the land. But restriction of sacred space is not the only option. The Tomb of Abraham et al. in Hebron, for instance, has been divided into Jewish and Muslim sections so that people from both faiths can worship there. Even better, some sites are open to all faiths. In Syria several years ago, I saw a Muslim family bringing a sheep to sacrifice to the Virgin Mary at the Convent of Our Lady, Seidnaya, in acknowledgement of answered prayer.
The same sharing of space by Muslims and Christians happens in Palestine (as at the Monastery of St. George near Beit Jala, or at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). I’ve seen Jews visiting the Armenian Cathedral of St. James and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (though I don’t know that they were worshiping). And I’ve heard of a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have turned the Separation Wall into a sacred space of sorts, joining together there to pray for peace.
The contesting of political space and sacred space are intertwined. On my way out of Jerusalem Tuesday, I was delayed by John Kerry’s motorcade (which required the closing off of one of the main streets in Jerusalem), on the way to the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This round of negotiations seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful. Wouldn’t it be nice if the sharing of sacred space could become a model for the sharing of political space, rather than another stone to cause politicians and citizens to stumble?