There was a cold, persistent rain that fell on the ancient Roman cobblestones of the Old City in Jerusalem on Friday. Followers of the three Abrahamic faiths — Jews, Muslims and Christians — were tested by the slippery stones as they all observed their prospective traditions.
In the Jewish quarter, families huddled under umbrellas as they rushed to get ready for the Passover observance. Christians from around the world carried on with their somber Good Friday processions along the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrow." And Muslims with prayer rugs tucked under their arms hustled through the narrow alleys of the Old City for Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque in the overlapping sacred space of Jerusalem.
Mr. Wajeeh Nuseibeh outside one of the giant wooden doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday, March 30, 2018. The Nuseibeh family, a Muslim family, has been Door Keeper for generations.
Heidi Levine/The GroundTruth Project
Jerusalem is indeed a city where three faiths come together, but it is also bracing for a big — and what many fear may be a divisive — moment next month when the US embassy will move from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. In doing so, the US will break with decades of diplomatic tradition by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The final borders of Jerusalem and the determination of it as a capital has long been held as an issue to be determined in the so-called “final status” of long-stalled peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
For Palestinian Christians and Muslims, this move by the Trump administration is yet another tragedy in their history and one that is causing many to lose hope of their dreams and aspirations of a Palestinian state with its own capital in East Jerusalem.
Israeli soldiers responded to demonstrations on Friday with force in an attempt to stop protesters from breaching the thick cordon of barbed wire and blast walls that keep nearly 2 million Palestinians holed up inside of the thin strip of land that is among the densely populated places in the world. At least 15 Palestinians were killed in the clashes and hundreds were reported wounded.
The protests mark the day in 1976 when Israeli security forces shot dead six Israeli Arabs who were protesting the expropriation of Arab-owned land.
Amid the two conflicting nationalistic narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, one group, Christian Zionists, have played an increasingly prominent role in the US in recent years. They've pushed for the US embassy to be moved and for the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Christian Zionists have become a growing force in Israel — and in the far-right Republican circles in the United States. Many adherents to this evangelical expression of Christianity are donating money and holding fundraisers that are bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year to support Israel, particularly in support of stepped-up immigration of more Jews to Israel.
Christian Zionists believe that the state of Israel and the return of Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with Biblical prophecy and that it sets the world on course for an apocalyptic battle that will set the stage for the return of Jesus as the Messiah. Most mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches have rejected this view of theology as dangerous and misguided, and have warned against it as a modern political expression and not sound theology. Many Jewish theologians and thinkers have also rejected Christian Zionism as a theology that in its core is anti-Semitic because of its imaginings of a final reckoning in which Jews will have to convert to Christianity or go to hell.
Visitors at an interactive exhibit in the Visionaries Gallery of the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem on March 29, 2018.
Heidi Levine/ The GroundTruth Project
But over the last 10 to 20 years, the Christian Zionist movement has become more mainstream, particularly here in Israel where the fundraising among American evangelicals has become an important source of support for Israel, particularly for settling Jewish immigrants to Israel in a demographic struggle and in shoring up Israel’s hold on Jerusalem as its capital. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a strong supporter of Christian Zionism as are many other members of the right-leaning Likud Party. They have found common cause with the far-right members of the Trump administration, particularly Vice President Pence.
Rev. Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian Christian pastor of the Lutheran Church and the president and founder of the new Dar Al-Kalima University College of Art and Culture in Bethlehem in the West Bank. He believes the US decision to move the embassy will have long-lasting repercussions.
“Jerusalem should be for two peoples and three religions. If you give Jerusalem to one people against the other, to one religion against two others, actually you are defying the identity of this city. And you are actually destroying its symbolism because Jerusalem is a city of peace,” Raheb said.
Others would strongly disagree. Inside the Friends of Zion Museum, which is dedicated to Christian Zionism and its history of supporting Israel, a Jewish family from New York were celebrating the Passover holiday with family and discussing the relocation of the embassy. They had a very different take, believing that Israel will be the best steward of the holy city, and will continue to ensure that all faiths are able to worship there.
“It’s about time,” said Shalom Maidenbaum. “Everybody’s welcome here, but who would you trust to be the keeper of the faith? The one religion that hasn’t persecuted any other religion throughout the ages? Or the two other religions who have a very checkered past when it comes to other people? So I’d go with the one that has the better history, which is the Jewish religion.”
Charles Sennott, founder of The GroundTruth Project, reported from Jerusalem.
From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI