The Middle East, Jerusalem and Religion

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 The Middle East, Jerusalem and ReligionThe Symbol of JerusalemThe city of Jerusalem holds religious significance for the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. In Jewish and Christian literature, Jerusalem is the symbol of the capital of the Messiah. Jerusalem has been sacred to the Jews as the site of the Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple since the 10th Century BC.

For the Jews it is around the city of Jerusalem that their divine homeland is ordained. The Christian revere Jerusalem for its role in the Old Testament as well as its significance in the life of Jesus. The Muslims on the other hand believe that Prophet Muhammad was taken on a divine journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to the heavenly celestial abodes where he was given instructions on the basic tenets of Islam.From a historical point of view too, Jerusalem was a Jebusite or Canaanite stronghold as early as the 4th millennium BC.

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Around 1000 BC, David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and walled the city. When Solomon built the temple on Mt Moriah on the 10th Century BC, it became the spiritual and political capital of the Jews. It fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. In the 6th Century BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia restored it to Hebrew rule.

The city became the capital of the Maccabees in the 2nd and the 1st Century BC. Thereafter, Jerusalem changed hands again and became the capital of the Herod dynasty under the aegis of Rome. The Muslims captured it in 637 AD making it the chief shrine after Mecca. The Crusades were brought on the city when the Fatimids hindered Christian pilgrims to it.

Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 AD. The city was recaptured by Muslims under Saladin in 1187. It then came under Mamluk and Ottoman rule.During the First World War, Jerusalem was captured by British forces in 1917.

It became the capital of the British-held League of Nation’s Palestine Mandate after the War. Both the Arabs and the Jews sought possession of the city as the end of the mandate approached in 1948. Christians however advocated a free Jerusalem open to all religions.When it became clear that Germany had lost World War II, aspirations for an independent Jewish state escalated.

Great Britain decided to turn the whole issue of Palestine to the United Nations. In November, 1947 the UN General Assembly voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into two states – one Jewish and the other Arab. It was however declared that Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, would be an internationally administered enclave. However, fighting for Jerusalem between the Jews and the Arabs broke out even before the partitioning.

Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the independent state of Israel on May 14, 1948. The four Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded the new state of Israel almost immediately. They could not overcome the Israelis, but the Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem surrendered on May 28, 1948. The Jews retained the New City.

In April 1949, Jordan annexed the Old City of Jerusalem and all the areas held by the Arab Legion. In December of the same year, Israel declared the New City of Jerusalem its capital. Israeli forces finally took over the Old City during the course of the Arab-Israel War of 1967, and formally placed paced it under a unified administration. Israel transferred many Arabs out of East Jerusalem and eventually declared unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 1980.

East Jerusalem remains a bone of contention with the Palestinians regarding it as their ultimate capital. In the mean time Israel had taken on an even more aggressive stance by announcing a controversial plan to in 1998 expand Jerusalem by annexing nearby towns. The international community does not recognize Israel’s unilateral claim to Jerusalem as the ‘undivided’ and ‘eternal’ capital of Israel. West Je­rusalem is regarded as the de facto, but not the de jure capital.

As such, most foreign Embassies remain in Tel Aviv, while some states have two Consulates in Jerusalem – one in the East and the other in the West (AFSC, 2004).By a history of conflict and the difference in religion, Jerusalem therefore remains symbolic of the situation in the Middle East.The Role of Religious differencesThe Middle East has been the cradle of the three major religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three religions have however been at loggerheads in the region.

While Jews and the Christians, to a large extent, assert that Israel or the former part of Palestine is the destined homeland of the Jews, the Muslims of the region vehemently oppose the idea. They treat the Israelis as outsiders who have infringed and settled on their lands. Israel on the other hand has been opposing the formation of a Palestinian state on one pretext or the other.Moreover, religious sectarianism has also played a crucial role in the region.

The long war between Iraq and Iran is deemed by many as a war fought between the Iraqi Sunnis and the Iranian Shiites, two religious sects of the Muslims. In Iraq, the Saddam Hussein government carried on atrocities against the Shiite population systematically. Iraq is now on the verge of a full-scale civil war between the Shiite and the Sunni Muslim.  In Search of a SolutionThe situation in the Middle East is the result of centuries of religious and social power play fed in the Twentieth Century by economic power struggles on a global scale because of the presence of oil in the region.

The first and basic step in bringing about an end to the Middle East crisis would be to end all interference and interventions from outside political powers. Powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom has lost their credibility for the Arabs who hold the impression that all western powers side with the Zionists. A United Nations, uninfluenced by any major power, could play a prominent role in letting the people of the region decide for themselves how they want to sort out their differences. The new generations of Israelis and Arabs must have realized the value of peaceful co-existence by now.

Unlike the generations that preceded them, they have the hindsight of history to learn from. Leaving them alone to settle their own problems with a fair but firm international body such as the United Nations could open up new avenues for peace and a permanent solution to the Middle East crisis that threatens the very existence of the world.            References-01AFSC, 2004, Occupation Realities, AFSC Middle East Resources Series, Middle East Task Force, Winter 2004. 

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