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Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories

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Giving no quarter, Jerusalem’s Armenians keep flame alive

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armenianThe rare sense of space and calm that marks out the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is both its blessing and its curse. The acquisition of the land, and construction of the beautiful St. James Cathedral at its heart, speaks volumes for the abilities of this small ethnic diaspora from the Caucasus to secure favour from the Ottoman sultans who partitioned the walled holy city in the hope of a bit of peace from religious rivalries.

But the limited, and shrinking population of the Armenians has made their Quarter an object of envy and desire for other groups, not least the fast-expanding Jewish Quarter next door, which has been massively rebuilt during 43 years of Israeli control after being ravaged during the period of Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967.

For a look at the issues, you can read our story and the accompanying factbox.

The Church itself, proud of a tradition that it was an Armenian king in 301 who first adopted Christianity as a state religion (some years before the Roman Empire), is  a solid fixture of Christian Jerusalem. The small ethnic Armenian lay community around it feels less sure of its future.

Having broken with authorities in Constantinople and Rome as early as the 6th century (in a complex dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus), the Church later secured under the Ottoman-era status quo which still governs such matters a share of the tripartite governance of Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites, notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the very much larger Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations. The latter churches and a small community of their Arab Christian adherents dominate the Christian Quarter, leaving the Armenians in splendid, if potentially precarious, isolation in their own Armenian Quarter, following their distinctive traditions in their unfamiliar Indo-European tongue with its unique script.

Writing on the walls

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09062010185aPalestinians in the Gaza Strip may just feel a little less isolated today. Israel is bowing to international pressure and rejigging its embargo on the  enclave in the wake of the bloodshed 3 weeks ago when it enforced a longstanding maritime blockade.

But earlier this month, taking my leave at the end of a 3-year assignment,  I reflected while walking the half-mile (700-metre) cage  (picture, right) that separates Gaza from Israel on  how the barriers that surround and divide this region have, if anything, grown higher, deepening the isolation of the rival parties. That may make any kind of reconciliation more difficult as time goes on. I wrote about this earlier today.

from FaithWorld:

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Israeli ruling to integrate Jewish schools

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Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested in Israel Thursday against a court order to desegregate a religious school and force Jewish girls of European and Middle Eastern descent to study together.

Demonstrations were held in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb with a large population of religious Jews, before some 80 Ashkenazi parents, Jews of European origin, were to report to jail for defying the Supreme Court ruling.

Desperately seeking… Madonna? Enlightenment?

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U.S. pop singer Madonna (C), accompanied by Brazilian model Jesus Luz (R), visits the grave of Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria at a cemetery in the northern town of Safed September 4, 2009. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

“You’re so beautiful!” a middle-aged American woman in a modern Orthodox Jewish headscarf called out across the street to a complete stranger as I was walking through the northern Israeli town of Safed the other day. Anywhere but Safed – also known as Tzfat – and I might have been more startled. But in this mountain-top retreat for Jewish mystics, both of an Orthodox and of less conventional persuasion, the public outburst of peace, love and understanding seemed entirely natural.

Depending on your national cultural references, it’s hard to capture the spirit of Safed precisely – it is part hippie-haven, part devotional centre for hordes of black-clad Hassidic Jews; part Taos, New Mexico, part Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I have tried to sum it up in a story today. While the Orthodox who flock there in the hundreds of thousands every spring to pray at the graves of the founders of Kabbalah mysticism would doubtless take exception to the idea, for an international audience it is probably Madonna who has done most to put Safed on the map lately. The Queen of Pop, whose interest in Kabbalah has drawn many other non-Jewish celebrity emulators, paid a brief visit last year, while on tour in Israel.

Jerusalem Power

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holy fireTo spend the past few days in the crowded, narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, among the multilingual throngs marking Passover or Easter, was to get an unforgettable sense of the power this place has over the minds of millions. It also gives an insight into some of the ways Jerusalem, and control of access to its holy sites, plays into global power politics.

For the majority of Palestinians who are Muslim, as well as for the Islamic world beyond, the Jewish state of Israel’s hold on the city since its capture from Jordan in the 1967 war is a deep grievance. Sporadic violence around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque has flared again this year.

from FaithWorld:

Jerusalem: heart of the Mideast conflict

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Jerusalem, December 8, 2009/Ammar Awad

Next week is the time of year when millions of people around the world look to Jerusalem as the source of inspiration for the Christian festival of Easter and Jewish Passover celebrations. But this week the city is also the recurrent focus of bitter dispute. The United States has directed rare strong criticism at Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements there, saying the building undermines U.S. efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

SETTLEMENT2Want to know more? Following are links to a sampling of recent Reuters stories about Jerusalem and a Reuters graphic on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalems:

As Afghan civilians killed, Israel complains of ‘double standards’ over Gaza

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A NATO air strike in Afghanistan that mistakenly killed 27 civilians has added a new dimensionto a divide between Israel and Western critics of its conduct in last year’s Gaza war.

Commentators in Israel’s biggest newspapers seized on Sunday’s carnage to argue that the West was quick to judge the Israeli military over Palestinian civilian casualties while ignoring the death of innocents in Afghanistan.

from FaithWorld:

Sex abuse claims against famed rabbi grip Israel

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Ultra-orthodox Jewish men praying in the Old City of Jerusalem, 11 March 2008/Yiorgos Karahalis

Israeli police said on Friday they were looking into allegations of sexual abuse against one of the country's most famous and politically influential rabbis, in a case that has triggered dramatic headlines this week.

from Global News Journal:

Berlusconi charms Israel with EU talk

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Berlusconi and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in Italy last year

Berlusconi and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in Italy last year

Silvio Berlusconi is seldom shy about making headlines, and he's also known to turn on the charm when he meets foreign leaders.

So it was hardly surprising the Italian prime minister kicked off a three-day visit to Israel on Monday by declaring his hope that Israel might one day become a member of the European Union.

from FaithWorld:

Out of the spotlight, Israel and Vatican negotiate holy sites

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Vatican flag in Jerusalem, Reuters photo by Baz Ratner

Vatican flags raised outside Jerusalem's Old City before Pope Benedict's visit, 6 May 2009/Baz Rattner

There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.

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