10 April 2009

Hope at Easter for the Middle East

Patrick Comerford

In today’s edition (10 April 2009), The Irish Times carries the following editiorial:

IN THE introduction to the passion narrative in his Gospel, St Matthew describes how Jesus laments over the city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23: 37-39). It is a passage that inspired the composer Sir John Tavener to write his Lament for Jerusalem which he describes as a “mystical love song” that brings together Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts. Tavener’s Lament was reworked for a groundbreaking visit by the Choir of London to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem in 2004.

Tavener’s engagement with the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospel passion narratives, and the mystical writings of the Sufi poet Rumi, serve as an appropriate reminder in Holy Week of the true significance of Good Friday. It is clear also that Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions can be brought together in harmony. Although the three great monotheistic faiths differ about the significance and importance of Christ, they all share a reverence for Jerusalem as a holy city and agree that Jews, Christians and Muslims share a common tradition.

Despite the shared beliefs, principles and values of these three faith traditions, Jerusalem has been at the centre of conflict in the Middle East across the centuries and the disturbing focal point for wars of bigotry, attrition, sectarianism and disputes over territory. It is a sad legacy for faith traditions that have the shared values of shalom, peace and salaam at their core. There is a biblical injunction to pray for the peace of Jerusalem but putting prayer into action in this instance has constantly escaped the world’s religious leaders.

And so it is very welcome that in Holy Week US president Barack Obama has brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and has declared as forthrightly as possible: “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” In the past, the words Crusade, Holy War and Jihad have been used with careless abandon in the Middle East, conveying to opponents that competing religious claims are at the heart of every conflict in the region. In the realm of faith and spiritual priorities, there can be no place for a vocabulary that appears to bless, sanctify and justify any wars – let alone violence on the scale that has ravaged the Middle East for too long.

The lament for Jerusalem by the exiles in Babylon and Christ’s lament for Jerusalem in the Gospel accounts of Holy Week are balanced by the prayer in the Psalms: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers’.” (Psalm 122: 6-7). Mr Obama’s meetings with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders are the most welcome gesture yet by a US president towards the leaders of the three traditions that love Jerusalem but whose legacy is one that has damaged the prosperity, peace and security of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

In all three monotheistic faiths, there is the promise that lamenting can turn to joy and destruction to rebuilding and hope. Mr Obama has taken the first steps towards building a Middle East that can expect and hope for prosperity, peace and security. And so in Holy Week, he has offered real Easter-like hope, the hope of new life.

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