Daily Dispatch: March 16, 2010

By Covering Religion Staff

Story and slideshow by Tammy Mutasa and Mamta Badkar

NAZARETH, Israel — As the Muslim call to prayer sounded through the streets of Nazareth at noon on Tuesday, church bells from the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation started to ring—up and down, up and down. The faster they churned, the louder the ringing became, turning two beautiful religious symbols into one cacophonous soundtrack.

For our class, the cacophony best captured the diverse and sometimes conflicting religious sounds and symbols we took in on our first full day in Israel.

The day began with our arrival at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which Christians believe to be the site where the Virgin Mary received the word from the Angel Gabriel about her immaculate conception.

As we watched, pilgrims from all over the world walked around the courtyard looking at the mosaics of Mary represented from all over the world—Mary in blue adoring Jesus in the manger from the Dominican Republic; and from China, Mary and baby Jesus floating in fluffy clouds adorned in oriental garments. The mosaics donated by various countries come loaded with their own interpretation of the Madonna.

After searching for his native Mexico icon, Jose walked the length of the courtyard scanning for the Mexican interpretation of Mary. His frustration grew as he quickly surveyed about 25 icons and still couldn’t find the one he was looking for.

“Why can’t I find Mexico?!” he whined jealously— especially after Maia found her native icon from Georgia first. Finally the moment: Jose witnessed the Virgin de Guadalupe de Mexico on the second story of the church near the grand altar.

“It was very powerful to encounter the Virgin de Guadalupe,” said Jose who believed he had a religious encounter. “Everything seemed right in my life; it was very peaceful and peace is something that’s hard to find these days.”

After the Church of the Annunciation, we strolled down the street, politely navigating away from aggressive vendors selling religious trinkets ranging from wooden carvings of Jesus’ face to smooth velvet Yarmulkes all sprawled out on tables.

At the bottom of the street—the Church of Annunciation still in full view—stood the Shihab a-Din Square. It’s the proposed site of the Shihab a-Din Mosque, a bone of contention in this city, which has so much Christian history but a clear Muslim majority. Later, Sheikh Abd Al-Salam Manasrah would tell us the permit they had to build the mosque was later revoked.

Across the street, inside a neglected building, was an NGO called Lights of Peace, a Sufi center focusing on interfaith work in Israel. Visible from its window was a green banner that read, “Say: He is Allah, The One, the only Allah the Eternal, the Absolute. He begetten not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.” The banner outside served as a clear marker of disputed territory.

We were invited inside and met Sheikh ’Abd Al-Salam Manasrah, founder of the association, and the Rev. Dr. Louis Hazboun, pastor of the Yafia church in Nazareth and professor of theology at Mar Elias College in the nearby village of Ibillin. The two sat on white plastic chairs in the compact room as they spoke to us in platitudes about conflict resolution and bringing peace to the region.

The day would come when they could build a mosque but no one should have to die for its creation said the Sheikh, “for it says in our tradition that a human life is more valuable than all the houses of prayer in the world.” The friar added that Christians were not out to convert the Jews or the Muslims, rather learn and respect from them.

During his talk, the sheikh randomly made an accusatory remark about Osama bin Laden of being a product of America and former President Bush’s assistant. Sunil called him out.

“It was the casual way he sprinkled it into the conversation,” Sunil said, who wasn’t impressed with the interfaith dialogue. “It’s amazing how radicalized the rhetoric is.”

After five and a half years, the center will shut down by the end of April because it has no money—adding another blow to the gossamer coexistence.

“Closing the center is death for me but I have no choice,” Sheikh Manasrah said.

While the Friar and the Sheikh preached about the confluence of the different faiths, outside the Lights of Peace center, the struggle to reach those ideals became a vivid reality. It was then we heard the commingling sounds of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, and the bells from the Church of the Annunciation. Most of us stood there taking it all in.

“Couldn’t they have at least waited a few minutes until the call to prayer was over?” asked a male colleague later. No one knew the answer.

As we reflected on the Sheik and the Friar’s message about religious coexistence we filed into the bus headed for Safed, one of the four holy cities in Israel and the center of Jewish mysticism.

That was, until we realized Mamta and Sam were missing. Before the bus pulled out of the parking lot, we all used our keen powers of intuition and guessed that they were still at the square. That’s were we found them—still munching on falafel.

An hour later, we pulled into the parking lot of Safed to a glorious view of the Amud Valley and the undulating green hills sprawling across the horizon.

“It was breathtaking, everything that makes people go ‘ahh’ here are the religious places,” Maia said. “I was like what hand of God made this?”

We walked down a narrow footpath in the Jewish Quarter of the city. After passing through several little shops selling artwork, mezuzahs and hamsas, we turned into the Yosef Karo Shul Synagogue. We sat around the blue painted room and listened to our marvelous guide Ophir Yarden explain how Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 became drawn to the city.

“Jews were attracted to live here because of the Golden Age of life which took place here in the 16th Century,” Ophir said. “Some of the most important books and creations and ceremonies of the Jewish tradition were all created in Safed in the 16th century.”

Later, we walked to the Ashkanazi Ari Synagogue. Yaffi grinned with delight when she had the opportunity to stand on the bima in the men’s section of the synagogue. Traditionally Jewish Orthodox women don’t lead prayer during services and sit in a separate section of the synagogue.

“It gave me new perspective and made me wonder how I would feel if I was leading prayer up there—I would be nervous,” Yaffi said still smiling.

Towards the end of our tour, we visited a defunct mosque-turned art exhibition hall in the former Arab Quarter. Ophir said the quarter ceased to exist when the Palestinians became refugees after 1948. Now it is known as the Artist’s Square.

Exhausted and nowhere near the end of our 14 hour day, our journey pressed on to Meron to see the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. As we walked up to what Professor Gorenberg described as an “ad hoc” prayer site, the scene mimicked an outdoors dance party as Jewish religious music laced with techno beats blared to Jewish school children, men and women laughing and chattering.

Before entering the building, our group separated by gender: men to the left, women to the right. Inside the stuffy room, Jewish women holding the Book of Psalms prayed earnestly, rocking back and forth in the direction of the tomb. Yaffi said it was Rosh Chodesh or the first day of the month in the Jewish calendar. Still, the display bothered her.

“The ambience was kind of disappointing,” Yaffi recalled. “If this is the only visit to a holy tomb the class was going to see, I would have wanted the ambience to be more holy and quiet or befitting of a prayer.”

Later that evening we pulled up to Beit Jann and were greeted by Sheikh Jamil Khalib who stood outside his home in the surprisingly nippy weather that most of us weren’t prepared for. Shaking hands with the men but nodding his head in acknowledgment at the women in the group, he led us into his warmly lit hall.

The talk didn’t reveal much about the teachings of the faith—which are secret— but gave us insight into some of their practices and problems they have had with assimilation in Israel and around the world.

Omar thought it was more like a history lesson given their secrecy, while Liang who covers the Baha’i and the Druze faiths echoed the sentiment, he found the answers were, “Well thought out and had context to the current situation in Israel because he talked about how the Druze learned from the Jews.”

After the delicious baklava, Turkish coffee, and lovely Middle Eastern spread, we couldn’t have been more thrilled to finally be on our way back to Kibbutz Lavi for the night.

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