This visit was funded by a small mission grant from Synod
I’m writing this immediately after returning from a brief and intense visit to Israel with some colleagues here in Newcastle. It was a visit that contained some interesting experiences.
Although we were worked hard while we were way we had a little free time but I went with the Revd Gavin Wort and Father Mari Das to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Maria Das had never been to the Holy Sepulchre and very much wanted to see it. It was, as it always is, crowded and noisy but some of the chapels were empty or nearly empty and by chance this included one of the major chapels used by the Armenian Church. That chapel has a mosaic floor which depicts several of the Armenian Churches destroyed by the Turks in the Armenian Genocide of 1915. A chapel which was far from empty was the Chapel of Golgotha, believed to be the site of the Crucifixion. Half belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and half to the Greek Orthodox Church. While we were there pilgrims were queuing to crawl beneath the altar and kiss the place where the cross is supposed to have stood. The queue moved quickly encouraged by a large Orthodox Priest who made sure nobody lingered. Neither my knees nor my theology would have allowed me to join in but both of my companions did.
We were in Jerusalem to look at issues surrounding the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, issues not that different to those that caused the Armenian Massacres a hundred years ago. On both sides there is a deep love and reverence for this land which both claim to be theirs and which carries great religious and cultural significance. Some of this is because of a shared heritage and sometimes it is because the same place has a different significance for different peoples. For example in Hebron we visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, built by King Herod and containing the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah, Isaac and Rebecca. Supposedly it is also the place where Adam and Eve were buried. This building one of the best preserved examples of the building works of Herod and has by turns been a synagogue, a church and a Mosque. Now it is split between the Jewish and Muslim communities with part of the building being used for Jewish Worship and part for Muslim, with each being granted exclusive rights to the whole building for about 10 days a year. Under the Ottomans Jews were allowed no nearer than the seventh step of the staircase that leads into the building and even now there are those who go there to pray.
To overcome generations of prejudice in the Holy Land it is complicated a job for us but that’s not our intent. Rather we hope to show those of our community in Newcastle, Christian, Jew and Moslem that there are arguments on both sides. To those who support the Palestinian Cause that the Settlers have a case. To those who support the Zionist Movement that the Palestinians have rights and a case as well. It is a difficult task we have set ourselves and going there makes me much more aware of just how difficult.