The Politics of Faith

By Joharah Baker

It occurred to me the other day as I as browsing the internet that this conflict is so entangled with details, biases and religious undertones that it is no surprise we are so far from a solution.

I innocuously came upon a travel advertisement on MSN entitled “Journeys of Faith.” The writer, who generously provided the readers with an attractive slide show of the aforementioned destinations, had narrowed down the world’s 13 most significant destinations for the most faithful. Of course, upon seeing this, I thought, no doubt, my beautiful country would certainly occupy at least four or five of these. How could it not? They don’t call it the holy land for nothing.

As I clicked my way through the slideshow, I was taken to exotic destinations in France, Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia and the United States. What? No Jerusalem? No Nazareth or Bethlehem? It couldn’t be. Then, somewhere wedged between Mecca and Lourdes, France was Jerusalem. Ahh, of course, the slide that came along with it could be no other, could it? This was MSN. Religious Jews praying at the Western Wall, piles of Torahs on a table behind them. The text did not make me feel any better.

“Situated at the crossroads of nations and cultures, Jerusalem is a focal point for many religions, particularly Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The city has been the holiest Jewish city for more than 3,000 years.”

Bam. Politics enters everything, even this slideshow of faith. To be fair, there were other mentions of Jerusalem’s religious distinction further down after an elaborate historical description of the Western Wall. Here is the last line.

“Other holy sites in Jerusalem include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. “

I was appalled. How is it that the place where Christ is said to have been crucified and subsequently resurrected not be given proper recognition? How could the supposed rock where Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven, thus revered as Islam’s third holiest site not be given space?

As I continued to click through the slide show, I was sure I would at least come upon Bethlehem, where Christ was born. That for sure, was a “journey of faith” any devout Christian was sure to make. Again, I was disappointed and appalled. Was it because the editors would have to mention that Bethlehem was located in Palestine? Or that it was occupied by Israel? For whatever reason, it seems utterly ridiculous that the Nativity Church did not make the list of 13.

It all comes down to politics, doesn’t it? How much bad rap would MSN get if they mentioned Jerusalem and instead of putting a picture of the Western Wall had posted the hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers at Friday noon prayers at Al Aqsa? In the twisted logic of political agendas, this would mean sidelining Jewish dominance and more importantly trumping it with Muslim significance. That, apparently, would lead to issues such as rights in Jerusalem, inadvertently implying that Muslim or Christian rights overrode those of Jews. And that, as we all know, is a major no-no for the West.

Slide show or not, we all know that Jerusalem and Palestine overall, is the ultimate journey of the faithful, at least the monotheistic faithful. Unfortunately, in a place like Palestine, politics clouds over even this. Pope Benedict XVI will visit Israel/Palestine in May, traveling through Nazareth and Jerusalem. He will not, however, travel to the Gaza Strip, which does not sit well with, if the petition is accurate, 2,000 people. Mostly Roman Catholics but also Muslims, Buddhists, humanists and even atheists have signed a petition put together by members of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, the University of San Francisco, and several other peace groups in the United States, calling for the Pope to travel to the Gaza Strip. “The people of Gaza in large part represent ‘the least among us’ today,” reads the petition, in reference to Christ’s penchant to “visit, eat and listen to the least among us.” According to Caritas, Jerusalem, a Catholic organization in the city, many Christian Palestinians felt that if the Pope does not visit Gaza, he should not come at all. The Vatican has yet to give any indication of a change in the Pope’s itinerary, which does not include the beleaguered Strip.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that even the religious significance of Palestine must be tainted by politics. As we speak, Jewish extremists continue to force their way into the Aqsa Mosque to perform Passover prayers, with complete disregard to the Muslim majority. It was acts like these that first started the uprising back in 2000 and if we are not careful will certainly lead to more bloodshed in the future. As long as the rights of one group – Palestinians both Muslim and Christian – continue to be swept aside for the rights of another, there can never be conciliation, religious or otherwise.

The sad part in all of this is that historically, these three religions peacefully coexisted once upon a time. Pre-Israel, Jews lived side by side with Muslims and Christians, shared land and food, history and culture. It was the onset of Zionism, the usurpation of an entire homeland from beneath the feet of its original inhabitants and the politicization of a religion that was once just that, which ultimately ruined any hope for reconciliation. Add to this the clear bias of the world in favor of Israel and by proxy, the Jewish claim to this land, and we have a very complicated situation indeed.

I am not very religious, nor do I believe that any one religion has a monopoly over faith, monotheistic or otherwise. I am however, fiercely Palestinian and with that identity comes an affiliation to what I believe is a history stolen from us. I know my words cannot change the balances of power that make such injustices against the Palestinians possible. I do hope, however, that when, for example, you come across a slide show portraying the “journeys of faith” you will not forget that the Western Wall is just a tiny slice of the religious significance of this city, that Muslims and Christians have laid claim to it for centuries and that Israel, no matter how strong it is today, can never obliterate that claim.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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