Jerusalem -- This is no place for an atheist or even a suave agnostic. From my window on the top floor of the massive King David Hotel I am looking out on a stone heap that is thousands of years old, the Old City of Jerusalem. Traffic swarms around its walls. Antennas sprout from the old roofs of the city. Airplanes fly overhead. Still, religion dominates here, sometimes in ways that might persuade even the most obdurate non-believer to give God a second look, and other times in ways that could get a non-believer locked away in the hoosegow -- some religious people can be very intolerant.
As Christmas approaches American Christians might take note of the intolerance here. Their sacred shrines -- and some belonging to Judaism -- are under threat from the Islamofascists of the Palestinian Authority. What is more, the Christian population of the West Bank is not being treated as hospitably by Yasser Arafat's colleagues as, say, the Muslim population of Detroit is being treated.
First let me explain why an atheist's faith or faithlessness might be shaken here in Jerusalem. Most atheists and agnostics put great stock in science. Unfortunately archaeology is no longer on their side. For over a generation archaeologists led by such distinguished scholars as Kathleen Kenyon have been unearthing ruins that, as the historian Paul Johnson writes, have "given us renewed confidence in the actual existence of places and events described in the early Old Testament books." Just the other day an Israeli archaeologist took me through a 3,800-year-old passageway where old Jerusalem's early inhabitants, the Jebusites, and later King David collected water for what became the old city of Jerusalem. Then he showed me a relatively new dig in the passageway whose characteristics perplexed archaeologists until someone remembered a passage in the Book of Kings. I was standing precisely where King David had Solomon anointed 3,000 years ago. I am by nature a skeptic, but cross-referencing the hard evidence of archaeology with Biblical passages makes a strong case. The archaeological site is called Ir David. It constitutes a massive endorsement of Biblical authenticity, and is eminently deserving of book-length treatment.
There are other digs in the Old City that are not so encouraging. Whereas the Israelis respect sacred places, the Palestinian Authority does not. Their police have taken over the Temple Mount with the sufferance of the Israeli government that controls it. Against the will of Jews and Christians, who judge it sacred, and of archaeologists, who consider it worthy of careful study, these religious bigots are carting away tons of ancient earth to build a huge mosque for political purposes. They are defiling a sacred and archaeologically invaluable location on a 3,000-year-old site to establish a political claim to the site, and no one is stopping them. The desecration is not unprecedented. Think back four years ago to when the Taliban conspired in the destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.
I know our government tells us that Islam is a very tolerant and pious religion, but I see many signs that it is neither. The fact is that here in a region where Israeli political control has preserved sacred shrines for all three of the monotheistic religions, Palestinian Muslims under the Palestinian Authority set up after the Oslo Accords have desecrated holy places, brutalized non-Muslims and driven Christians from Bethlehem after indulging in some gerrymandering that would stir admiration in an American politician.
Surely you remember last April when Palestinian militants (gunmen) took over Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, booby-trapped its entrance, and terrorized 150 worshipers for 39 days while eating the clerics' provisions, quaffing their booze -- so much for Allah's blue laws -- stealing church valuables such as gold crucifixes, and using sacred scriptures for toilet paper -- ah, cleanliness. That sort of barbarism is not new. Earlier, Arafat summarily seized a Greek Orthodox monastery near the Church of the Nativity to serve as his occasional residence. In Hebron in 1997 his thugs seized Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery, evicting its monks and nuns. Since his latest intifada began in 2000 Arafat has regularly stationed his artillery and sharpshooters in Christian towns near churches to either shield his gunmen or bring Israeli fire down on places of worship. Returning to our archaeological theme, in Jerusalem Palestinian Authority officers have endangered the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by attempting to construct a facility on its roof, a latrine -- again this Islamic fascination with bodily functions.
The destruction of holy sites runs apace with the destruction of Christian communities on the West Bank. Sometimes it is through heavy-handed political schemes as when Arafat's Palestinian Authority incorporated 30,000 Palestinians into the municipality of Bethlehem, changing the Christians' 60% majority to a minority. Sometimes it is through terror. News accounts mount of Christians being beaten, raped, murdered and charged by protections rackets. In Bethlehem and even in Jerusalem Christian numbers dwindle. There has been very little complaint about these bigoted acts, but any curious observer here in this ancient city does not have to research very sedulously to find out the depressing facts.
The Holy Land has suffered Roman legions, crusaders, the armies of the Prophet, Turks, two World Wars, and more. But its archaeological treasures have endured. Its religious minorities have had good times and bad. Now both face bad times, unless civilized forces can maintain the peace and tolerance that so many fanatics make a mockery of.
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