I’ve spent a week in Jerusalem, but I’ve only visited Jewish and Muslim holy sites. I’ve spent some time at the wailing wall on two different days. And to be precise, I haven’t actually been up to the Temple Mount to where are the holiest Muslim sites – but I’ve approached and been turned away from the mount several times, which is itself an experience which gives a sense of the importance of that place. Today I wanted to visit the church of the holy sepulchr, which is the holiest Christian site in the old city of Jerusalem. I thought that going there would be like coming home. I am not religious, but since I am a person of Christian heritage I thought going there would be in some sense similar to the wailing wall, but in the contexts of beliefs and narratives I am more familiar with.
The church itself is very beautiful. It has a long history, which I won’t bore you with but you can read it if you want on wikipedia. The experience of visiting the church, however, was totally different from the wailing wall, or even being near the temple mount. It is crammed with tour groups. Not just tourists, but “hello my name is” tourists, complete with stickers on their shirts which correspond with the number on a sign held up by the tour guide.
Talking to Chris, my catholic friend on this trip, helped me understand why this place is so different from the other holy sites in Jerusalem. While a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is traditionally an important part of Christianity, today it is seen as totally optional, and as more of a tourist trip than a religious experience.
Maybe the place is so different because there is a much smaller Christian community in Jerusalem and Palestine than Muslim or Jewish. This doesn’t correspond with the map of the old city, which has two large Christian quarters (the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter). Maybe the real Christians who live around here don’t pray here regularly because of the massive number of tour groups. There were real Christians there, obviously, priests and nuns, praying and reading and solemnly practicing rituals in the midst of a thousand white and poorly dressed tourists.
It made me somewhat upset, visiting this church today. I wanted the Sepulchre to be a spiritual place that I could relate to. But maybe it isn’t there anymore – destroyed by years of infighting between different religious groups, and by the failure of Christianity to as a community take a stand on the conflict here. Destroyed by a million tourists who come here for personal reasons, and who come “for the experience” more than for religious reasons or to relate with the local community here. The failure of the majority of Christians, or at least north American Christians, to stand in solidarity with Palestinian Christians, is I think a strong demonstrable failure of Christianity to act on its principles.