Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise, yet hope flickers
The latest clash involves a familiar site that is holy to Jews and Muslims -- what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call Al-Aqsa or the Noble Sanctuary. Atop the buried ruins of the first and second Jewish temples are the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, two of Islam's most sacred sites.
Both Jewish temples were destroyed by invaders, the second in A.D. 70. Six hundred years later the Dome of the Rock was built. It enshrines the rock from which Muhammad is said to have made his night journey into heaven and is located on an outcrop known as Mount Moriah where, according to Jewish belief, Abraham went to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.
An agreement established in 1187 and still in force today says that while non-Muslims may enter the compound, only Muslims may pray there. Mosque officials once controlled access, but since the year 2000 Israeli authorities have been in charge.
Muslims now say the agreement is slowly being eroded, with more and more Jews arriving to "secretly" pray. Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, recently said, "If a religious war is to be avoided, it is up to Israel to enforce the rules." A Muslim guard, Nadir Shaheen, asks, "If they say prayers in their heads, how can we know?" Shaheen said he sees Jews praying and wonders why Israeli police don't stop them.
Israeli government figures, meanwhile, show that about 12,000 Jews visit the site each year, compared to 4 million Muslims. Activist groups, however, are advocating for more Jewish access to the compound, calling it an issue of religious freedom.
Tensions flared in October when Israeli police dismantled surveillance cameras installed at the compound by Muslim authorities less than 24 hours earlier. This followed the Palestinian killing of two Israeli men in Jerusalem's old city the previous week. Since then, violent incidents have spread throughout Israel and the Palestinian territory, leaving more than 90 dead on both sides.
The latest wave of killings has taken a new twist in a region familiar with bloodshed. Stabbings, shootings and driving vehicles into crowds are far different from the rocket attacks and suicide bombings of the past.
The use of knives by Palestinians is a low-tech way of scaring Israelis despite their high-tech security. It's easy to buy a knife in Jerusalem, and the results are the same as suicide bombings -- terrorizing Israeli citizens and provoking Israeli police to respond with force.
"What's happening in Al-Aqsa today is a very dangerous escalation, and it does undermine the peace and stability of our city," said Hosam Naom, dean of St. George the Martyr Cathedral in Jerusalem. "The Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- and particularly in Jerusalem -- is not about religion; that is, it is not between Muslims and Jews or Christians and Jews.
"The issue is much bigger than that," Naom said, describing it as a political conflict that "cannot be resolved along religious parameters or framed as a religious one."
Naom calls himself a Palestinian Christian, and this points to another confusing issue -- the proliferation of labels and terms used to describe people: Christian, Muslim, Jew, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Israeli Arab, Palestinian Christian, Messianic Jew and others. Sometimes it is easy, but erroneous, to exchange one for another -- Arab and Muslim, for instance.
"I think if you ask people about Arabs, they would generally say, 'Oh, they're Muslim,'" said Ava Burnard*, a Christian worker in Bethlehem. "But there is a Christian [Arab] population."
Only a few miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is on the West Bank in Palestinian territory and has been the site of much of the violence.
Christians in Bethlehem feel alienated from both Muslim Arabs and Israelis, Burnard said.
"The Israelis don't like them because they're Palestinian," she said. Though many Christian Palestinians want to leave, they can't. "They feel really trapped and walled in," she said. "They feel forgotten by much of the world."
One Christian shopkeeper in Bethlehem said, "All of this [conflict] is because of the mosque," meaning the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
"When we were called to the Palestinians," Burnard said, "we kind of had this motto that we were called to a people without peace, not just physical peace, but it's become so evident they are without spiritual peace.... They are a people without peace because they do not know Christ, even though this is the birthplace of the Messiah."
Cody Burnard*, Ava's husband, said, "It sounds so simplistic for us to say that Jesus is the answer and that He's the solution to the conflict." Cody explained that Jesus Himself said people would argue over where to worship -- at the Jerusalem temple or on a certain mountain. Jesus emphasized, however, that worship would be in spirit and truth and not based on a location, Cody said.
Ben Martin*, a Southern Baptist representative living in Israel, chooses to look at the unity among Christians in the middle of this latest violence instead of the divisions between factions fighting one another.
"Many would like to incite people to hate and to violence," Martin said. "However, there are many in Israel among the Jewish and Arab believers who would refuse to allow extremists to divide them. There are numerous examples of this from both Arabs and Jews."
One such example, Martin noted, is a meeting of Messianic Jews and Arab Christians who get together annually in the Galilee region. The latest meeting took place in October.
"This year it would have been easy to cancel such a meeting, but then that would be giving in to those who would love for people to fear and hate each other," Martin said.
Quoting a blog post called Stories of Hope Amidst the Chaos on oneforisrael.org, he said, "This year, the event was particularly meaningful in the midst of the horrendous events that can so easily breed distrust and alienation between the two communities. It was all the more important to stand together in unity, and refuse to allow the enemy to sow division within the body of Yeshua."
At the meeting, it was suggested that each Messianic congregation adopt an Arab church, and each Arab congregation adopt a Messianic church, in order for the leaders to meet, pray, plan activities and share the Gospel together.
Pray for Israel, Martin asks.
As political tensions rise in the Middle East, pray for unity in the body of the Messiah in Israel. As Jesus said, "This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
When the Gospel is advancing, Satan is committed to opposing it. Pray for protection for believers and pastoral leadership in Israel as they boldly share the Good News. Pray that the body in Israel will remember "the Lord is faithful; He will strengthen you and guard you" (2 Thessalonians 3:3). Pray there will be a bountiful harvest.
Pray for Palestinian believers, the Burnards ask.
Pray that they will keep their faith in the midst of the current conflict, not wavering to the right or the left, "for He who promised is faithful" (Hebrews 10:23).
Pray that the way believers relate within their own families will reflect the Gospel in their homes and impact the families around them.
Pray God will strengthen Palestinian believers to boldly proclaim the Gospel of grace to their families, neighbors and friends. Ask God to protect them as they minister to their own people, so worship will be lifted up across every Palestinian village.