To 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.
But with the confluence this year of the Easter calendars of both Western and Eastern churches, as well as the Jewish Passover celebrations, it was the issue of Christian access and the competing claims of different Christian denominations to the holy sites of Jerusalem, that was particularly in focus this past week. And if it was American-accented English that dominated among the visiting Jewish families crowding towards prayers at the Western Wall and which served as a reminder of the powerful alliance Israel enjoys, despite current turbulence, with the United States, it was the Russian spoken by many of the Christian pilgrims which indicated one of the main trends changing the balance of power within that fractured religious community.
The Israeli state insists on its commitment to free access to the Old City for all religion. Complaints over Easter from the Palestinian Christian minority have been met by Israeli assurances that permission to enter Jerusalem is granted where possible and by pleas for understanding of security concerns in a city blighted by violence. There are also concerns about crowd control. Some Israelis also point out that, under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967, Jews had virtually no access. Local Christians in the, predominantly Greek Orthodox, Christian Quarter and in the Armenian Quarter now complain however, like their neighbours in the Old City's Muslim Quarter, of encroachment on territory by Jewish groups seeking property. Israel says its laws are fair to all. Some among the Old City's Christian minority, notably clergy, complain of intimidation by Jewish radicals, including spitting on them in the street.
The treatment of minority Christians by Jerusalem's rulers has long been an issue in diplomacy. In the 19th century, it was the Muslim Turks who found themselves on the receiving end of pressure from the Christian powers of Europe. Even today, codes regulating relations among the Christian denominations are the product of Ottoman attempts to appease international pressure or to keep the peace among the different churches competing for a slice of hallowed ground around the traditional tomb of Jesus.