PRUDEN: Easter in Jewish Jerusalem

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Celebrating Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most important holy day for Christians of all denominations, can be deadly in the Middle East. Reciting a Scripture or humming a hymn could cost your head in Saudi Arabia, and you could risk other highly valued body parts in the similarly benighted ninth-century neighborhoods abounding in the lands of caliphs, imams and ayatollahs.

Beheading is something of the national sport of Saudi Arabia, where the government has scheduled for Friday the gruesome ritual for a man, the father of five, accused of sorcery for “making predictions” in his native Lebanon. (Punditry can be risky there, too.)

Better to take your celebration to Israel, where the government will assist your visit. It’s the difference between Middle East and the cultural West, between the 8th and 21st centuries, between civilized and not-so-civilized. The Israeli guarantee of religious freedom, taken for granted in the nations of the West, is part of what invites hostility and belligerence from Israel’s neighbors.

Pilgrims proceed under protection today along the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Christ took with His cross to the crucifixion at Calvary, and on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, believe Christ was buried on the site three days before the Resurrection. Christians and everyone else are welcome to join the procession. Unless a suicide bomber or other evil-doer slips through security, no one will be harmed. The Israeli government guarantees it.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1948, declares Israel to be a Jewish state, but further declares that the nation “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” It’s a promise bereft of Jeffersonian eloquence, but it’s plain and to the point.

In that long-ago day, in a burst of naive enthusiasm, certain idealists imagined that this example would spread to other places where religious freedom is understood to mean that you have the freedom to keep your head so long as you believe what the imams in the government tell you to believe. Israel has since enacted comprehensive legal codes to protect the hundreds of Christian, Muslim and Jewish monuments and markers and to guarantee universal access to them. Jordan, before the Six-Day War in 1967, controlled Jerusalem, and Jews were forbidden entry. Many Jewish holy sites were routinely vandalized.

Moshe Dayan, the defense minister who led the Israelis to victory in the Six-Day War, was clear about religious tolerance and protection in a radio broadcast the morning Jerusalem was captured. “This morning,” he said, “the Israel Defense Force liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour - and with added emphasis ‘at this hour’ - our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights.”

This clearly includes the right to disagree. Not every Christian regards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site of Christ’s burial. A tomb in a garden below Calvary was discovered in 1867 and, popularized by Gen. Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, an eccentric Bible scholar once assigned to the British military in Palestine, became known as “the Protestant tomb.” The Anglican church once recognized it as the authentic tomb. Scholars are divided today on whether this is so.

The tomb fits the description in Matthew 27:58, when Joseph of Arimathea begged Pilate for the body of Jesus: “Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth. And laid it in his own, new tomb, which he had hewn out of a rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”

The stone is there today, and the track on which it was rolled away is visible in the rock. The tomb and the garden lie beneath a large stone outcropping, vaguely resembling a skull, marked by two gaping holes, as if eye sockets. Hence the name “Golgotha,” or “skull,” given to the site of the crucifixion.

The argument continues, as with so much about the meaning of the Scripture. But Christians agree on the Resurrection as the story of Easter, the central fact that gives the Gospel meaning. The pilgrims continue to make their way in peace to Jerusalem, scene of the holiest and most horrific events of history, watched over now with respect and reverence by Jews.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

About the Author
Wesley Pruden

Wesley Pruden

Editor Emeritus — American journalist legend and Vietnam War author James Wesley Pruden, Jr. is Editor Emeritus of The Washington Times. Pruden’s first job in the newspaper business dates back to 1951 as a copyboy at the now defunct Arkansas Gazette where he later became a sportswriter and an assistant state editor. In 1982, he joined The Washington Times, four ...

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