An Irishman’s Diary on competing faiths in Jerusalem

Where the great religions meet

The Greek altar   in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.  Photograph: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images

The Greek altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images


So there was your diarist in the “Upper Room” itself on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the place where it is believed that Christ celebrated the “Last Supper” with his 12 apostles. Just as one was thinking to oneself that as a “mess hall” this was a pretty reasonable space, in comes a large, colourful group of Asian Muslims.

Now, Mr Brownlow at Sabbath School in First Kilrea Presbyterian Church had never prepared me for this. When he gave me the Jesus/Jerusalem narrative, there were no Muslims in the screenplay. Instead, there was a lot of talk about the blighter Judas and his 30 pieces of silver and all the rest that you know well.

Intrigued by my fellow tourists, I wondered over to have a word with them. They were from Mumbai, on a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Ibrahim told me. You see, he said, this place is a holy site for “you people” but it is also holy for “us Muslims”.

Of course, as anyone who has ever visited the Holy Land knows all too well, Ibrahim is dead right. The Cenacle, or the site of the Upper Room, makes the point perfectly because directly above the room is the minaret of a Muslim mosque, whilst one storey below is the tomb of King David, one of Judaism’s great holy sites.

Put simply, religious iconography in Jerusalem overlaps in a totally bewildering and nearly always polemical way, with all three of the great monotheisms staking oftimes contradictory claims. The cynic might conclude that this means that all three of them are making it all up.

In truth, it is more likely that in this extraordinary land, different faiths have lived cheek by jowl for a very long time. During Pope Francis’s recent visit to the Holy Land, we had a very clear reminder of this as his final prayers during an open- air Mass in Manger Square, Bethlehem, clashed with a loudspeaker blast of the “Adhan”, the Muslim call to prayer.

However, as is well known, even the Christians themselves can sometimes “clash”.

Take the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguably the holiest place in Christendom since it marks the site of Christ’s burial and crucifixion. When you arrive there, the first thing that you notice is the infamous “Immovable Ladder” stuck up against an upper storey wall of the church.

In theory, at least, the ladder goes back to a decree issued in 1853 (or indeed earlier) by the Ottoman ruler of Jerusalem, Sultan Abdul Hamid 1. Allegedly annoyed by the endless squabbling between the six denominations that lay claims to owning bits of the church (Franciscans, Armenian Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox), the sultan imposed a state of something best known as the status quo to end differences of opinion about the upkeep.

This led soon after to questions about who should remove an exterior ladder under one of the windows. The problem was that if you get to move the ladder, then you clearly have the “conch” or the running of the place.

So 160 or more years later, the auld ladder is still there. What is more, given that the Christians could not agree on how to run the place, various sultans entrusted the keys of the place to two Muslim families, the Nuseibehs and the Joudeh Al-Goudias.

So the keys to Calvary are in the hands of Muslims, are they? Nice one.

Now a cynical mind might reasonably object that this ladder business is a brilliant move by the Israeli tourist authorities. After all, tourists read about these squabbling Christians and are then delighted to find this symbol of their differences leaning against the wall. However, it is worth recalling that in very recent times, the various denominations have been known to resort to fisticuffs on a particular holy day, so the tensions clearly are real and not just show for tourists.

In reality, the various denominations spend much more time agreeing than fighting but their occasional “differences” just serve to remind one that the path to full Christian communion is a long and winding one. However, not nearly so long or winding as the path to harmonious relations between Jew and Muslim, obviously.

In truth, there is nothing quite like a trip to Jerusalem and all its inter-religious polemics to promote a serious leaning towards atheism.

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