The first half of our Sharing Perspectives course had certainly been both physically and emotionally exhausting. I was not expecting the second half to be any different.
Nazareth was the home of Jesus – I was expecting a small village but found, like most places, it was now a large sprawling town full of sites where pilgrims visited to pay homage to Christ. As we entered the Church of the Annunciation the first sounds I heard was of large crowds and bagpipes! There was a procession heading into the church made up of children in uniform and clergymen in a variety of robes and colours.
25th March is the Feast of the Annunciation which marks the occasion of the visit to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel. During this visit Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was with child and would be the mother of Jesus Christ. The date is a major annual celebration and it was fortunate that our visit coincided with the celebration (whether man-made or divine intervention who knows!). The Church is built on what is believed to be the site of Mary’s house and inside we were able to see the site of where she is believed to have lived and given birth.
One think concerned me on arrival as we stepped off the minibus. A small mosque just outside the church grounds had hanging on the wall a verse from the Quran which talks about Christians and the Trinity, a concept rejected by Islam. As a Muslim I felt for my Christian colleagues and the insensitivity of the way this verse had been displayed. In so many previous places I had seen examples of Muslims and Christians accepting their differences, getting on with their lives and recognising that this disparity in our belief was no reason to be in conflict. Muslims and Christians are aware of this fundamental difference in our faith. Displaying this verse in a place so significant for Christians showed a level of insensitivity and disrespect for a people who our prophet PBUH had always treated with the utmost respect. Wholly unnecessary in my belief.
Next stop was lunch at Pilgerhaus and this has to be one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve visited. In fact thinking back, some parts reminded me of my childhood visits to the Botanical Gardens in Roundhay Park in Leeds, in its hay-day and in full bloom. The cactus and the bougainvillea were truly heavenly and praying outdoors under the shade of a tree with the fresh smell of the blossom in the air was divine. For a brief moment you could have believed you were on a desert island somewhere far away from all the conflicts the world faces today.
The pictures below are from Capernaum, the Church of the Beatitudes and Church of the Multiplication / Tabgha Mensa Christi. The Church of the Beatitudes is built on the site where Jesus gave the Sermon of the Mount. The Church of the Multiplication was probably one of the most simplistic of churches seen during the visit with one of the most intricate mosaic floors which is believed to be unique in that no image has been repeated. As churches go, the most out of place seemed to me to be the church at Capernaum built over the remains of Peter’s mother in laws house. It would not have been out of place in an episode of Star Trek, although internally it looked more like what i would recognise a church to be.
(Steps taken – 12,536)
The last two days in Jerusalem were now upon us and they were going to prove to be just as hectic and just as poignant as the others.
After an early rise and breakfast, we all headed off to the Haram al Sharif to pay a visit to the Mosque of Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock. This was quite an amazing event as, whilst non-Muslims are permitted into the grounds between 7.30am and 10.00am daily, they are not permitted into the actual buildings themselves. So this was quite an historic event for us all to be a part of as St Georges College had managed to arrange a guided tour. As a Muslim, I was humbled to see the respect that was shown to the holy place by our Christian colleagues who were not only keen to learn about the historical significance of the place, but also to ensure that they were respectful in every way to the place they were visiting. It was an honour to show them Al Aqsa and explain why it is held in the hearts of Muslims so dearly. Many were taken aback – by the intricate calligraphy inside the mosque, the beautifully carved mimbar (pulpit) but especially by the small groups of men and women worshippers gathered under the shade of trees in the early morning reciting the quran and learning from their teachers. For me the morning can be summed up in one word – peace.
Following yet another delicious lunch back at base we headed to the first of two institutional visits. The first of these was to the St George’s School for boys attended by Christian and Muslim Palestinian boys upto the age of 18. The young people we met were aged 14 and above. It was heartwarming to see the relationships that these young men had formed irrespective of religious background. It didn’t matter to them how the other worshipped and there was a real sense of brotherhood and unity which had been nurtured by the school. However the concerns of the young people were no different to those expressed by youngsters the world over – university, jobs and marriage, particularly inter-religious marriages! It was a wonderful opportunity to share experiences from our worlds – they were no different to our sons back home who had dreams, ambition and drive. One young man even admitted to supporting Arsenal which will no doubt make my sons and nephews very happy! It is liberating to know that these young men, whilst ambitious, dream of peace in their world and will strive to make it a reality.
That evening we had a formal dinner discussion (actually I think ‘dinner’ doesn’t do it credit – it was more of a banquet!). Guests of honour were Ms. Aminah Abu Sway, daughter of our earlier guide and speaker that week Dr Mustapha Abu Sway, and Ms. Tala Dawani, daughter of Bishop Suhail Dawani. I was honoured that evening to say a few words of prayer along with a Christian colleague before dinner:
“In the name of God the Most Beneficent the Most Kind. Thank you oh God for all the wonderful blessings you have bestowed upon us. In this land so special to Muslims Christians and Jews, through your kindness and mercy we have come together – strangers – who have forged friendships that we hope and pray will continue when we return home and help us to work towards peace in this troubled land. Oh God in a world where many do not have food or water to sustain them we thank you for all the wonderful food and drink before us this evening. With God’s name and on the blessings granted by God (do we eat). Bismillahi wa barakat Allah”.
I lost count of the number of dishes before us that evening! surprisingly our speakers were still able to discuss ‘love of God and Neighbour in Islam and Christianity’ through very personal perspectives. One of the hardest questions of the evening was asked of the young ladies – is it possible to love your enemy? Both clearly found answering this very challenging – still thinking about it today having had a multitude of experiences and emotions over the week, I’m sure I still can’t answer that one. Forgiving your enemy is one thing – loving them is another.
Our final full day in Jerusalem involved a visit to the Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children. The hospital is a centre providing treatment, rehabilitation, education, advocacy and empowerment for children with special needs and their families. Catering for children from birth to 15 years of age, the centre treats 1500 young people at the hospital and outreach centres annually. However, all their services are at risk due to the funding situation and the hydro therapy pool is one area they have had to close. Annual running costs are 12 million Israeli Shekels (approx. £2,000,000).
The centre also has a school on site catering from kindergarten to 18 years and offers a workshop for adults to do carpentry and weaving, with many products for sale. The centre operates under Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian licenses which provides many challenges. However, as with the school visit, it was patently evident that here was a place where Christian and Muslim relations were at there strongest. The passion for the centre, the children and the vital service that was being provided was evident in the faces of the administrators, doctors and therapists that we saw. Whilst an up hill battle in many ways, they conducted themselves with professionalism and dignity and provided a safe place where children and their families could be supported and most importantly see some hope for the future of their children.
Our next stop was to the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives Part of a larger complex consisting of a Christian church and monastery, as well as a mosque, it is located on the site believed by the Christian tradition to be the earthly spot where Jesus ascended into Heaven forty days after his resurrection. From here we moved on to the Church of the Pater Noster., a partially reconstructed Roman Catholic church built on the site believed to be where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer. The Lords prayer decorates the walls of the church in every language you can imagine. Despite my best efforts however I wasn’t able to locate the prayer in Urdu! This stop gave us the opportunity to reflect on our trip whilst looking out over Jerusalem from the Mount and ponder the things we had seen, the many contradictions, and the things we would take back with us.
A free afternoon gave those of us who had the energy (and stamina) to go back out into Jerusalem and do a little bit of shopping. Whilst I had done just a little earlier in the trip whilst in Hebron (my Hebron glass made it home safe by the way), the ceramics on display in the souks were too hard to resist. Hats off to Judy and Clive who managed to keep up with Zahra and myself! Particularly Judy who was quite taken aback by the amounts we bought and was genuinely concerned about how we would get this all back to the UK within our 23kg allowance! The mystery was resolved later that evening as most things were presented to our hosts as way of a thank you for all the time and effort they had invested in the course and making it so worthwhile for everyone of us.
Before the evening presentations of our certificates which was followed by a reception hosted by the. Dean, we were all given the opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings from the previous week. It was hard to believe how much we had experienced as a group during such a short period of time – the sights the sounds the smells from around the city were truly magnificent. Most interesting was listening to everyone and how different aspects of the city had had an impact on each and every one of us. Most impactive for the Muslim delegates was clearly the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Al Aqsa. To stand on the sight of such a holy place one truly felt very blessed.
The final full day in the Holy Lands began with an early morning speedy walk through the old city of Jerusalem to the Al Aqsa mosque. Sadly we would be unable to attend the friday congregational prayer as we would be leaving Jerusalem at noon to begin our journeys home. The coolness of the early morning air was refreshing but as we walked briskly through the dark cobbled streets towards the mosque, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness at leaving. The streets were very quiet but more and more people joined us as we got closer to the mosque. I remembered my early morning walks through the streets in Mecca in 2008 – the streets there would be bulging at the seams at this time in the morning. I suppose if people are unsure of whether they would be allowed entry into the Haram they are more reluctant to venture out so early. Again, unhindered we entered the mosque as the prayers had just started. My thoughts on this final day were for my wonderful family, my incredibly loving, patient, tolerant and supportive husband who is my best friend, by beautiful sons, my darling daughter and my wonderful daughter in law. I said a special prayer for them all as well as my beloved parents who were no more in this world, my siblings and their families as well as one for those who had asked specifically for me to say a special prayer for them. I asked God to protect us all and grant us all that is good in this life and the next. And a little special prayer was said for the two new additions to our clan, one of whom had entered in the world whilst I was in Jerusalem. As I sat and prayed and absorbed the peaceful serene surroundings and watched the tiny birds flitter around the mosque I prayed that the same peace would descend throughout this troubled land and in the hearts and minds of those in power and with the power to bring about real change in the lives of so many.
As the sun rose, we all took the final opportunity to take pictures of the dome and the mosque. And then bade farewell with a prayer that maybe, perhaps one day, I could return.
As we began our walk back to the college, the sky became lighter and the air was filled with the smells of fresh baking. It didn’t take much convincing when we agreed to stop and sample the freshly baked delights from a local baker. Date filled fresh buns at 6.30am are delicious and a must try if you ever visit Jerusalem. And Jerusalem bread of course!
Finally we were all on our way back to our homes in London, Leicester, Coventry, Dudley and Stafford to name a few of the places we had come from. We bade farewell at the airport and began our journeys back to our respective worlds full of the day to day tasks and events that make up our lives.
But the experiences and lessons from the previous seven days were not ones we would forget in a hurry. So many people and so many places have touched our hearts in a very short space of time. In life there is so much interchange which is stimulating and joyful when things are going well. However this shift has the ability to destroy us when things go wrong. Jerusalem is full of such places and many conflicting spaces. The one thing that went through my mind time and time again was why? Why is this space the subject of so much conflict? Why can’t it be shared by all the Children of Abraham? Jerusalem is split into four quarters – Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. There is a rich mix of ethnic groups and religious beliefs within the city. Why are we not having these difficult conversations, because by not doing so are we not allowing unfounded prejudices to flourish in the man-made schism we have created? The history of the region is staggering. In 1336 for example, the first women’s refuge in Jerusalem was established for women with no family or those who faced violence within their families. Jerusalem established a free food kitchen for everyone – travellers, the poor, hundreds of years before anything quite so radical was introduced in western civilisation. You can sense holiness in the air of Jerusalem. Not by accident is Jerusalem holy to Christians Muslims and Jews – it is divine in every sense of the world.
“And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record. (6:59).
Jerusalem is our biggest test. Reconciliation must be our goal. In this land where “even a bag of cement becomes a political issue” let us look to putting politics aside and focus on our commonalities – our hopes and desires for the future. Then maybe, just maybe, Christians Muslims and Jews can sincerely share perspectives and share space and live in peace.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
May they prosper who love you
May peace be within your walls,
And prosperity within your palaces.
For the sake of my brothers and my companions,
I will now say: ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the One Who is our God
I will seek your good”.
(Psalm 122 A Song of Ascents; David)