It’s been a long, long time since I knelt beside my bed and prayed with full faith, asking the Lord my soul to keep. My prayers were never answered and I abandoned God by the time I was 10 years old. I reconsidered faith regularly: when I first studied world religions in high school, when I had a Catholic boyfriend, when I had children. At my harshest, I considered religion a crutch for those who were too lazy or too weak to make their own decisions. If asked I might have answered agnostic or atheist, or simply said there might be something we don’t understand– yet. For many years I simply haven’t thought about it.
Then I came to the Holy Land.
Religion permeates this place. In Jerusalem even I could feel something, coming from the people, from the very stones. People wear their faith, literally.
Pilgrims come from all around the world. They kiss the stones in churches, walk the stations of the cross, pray at the Wailing Wall, visit the Dome of the Rock. Their faces shine with joy.
I knew this was the centre of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet the reality is much more complex and splintered. Jewish can mean Orthodox, Ultraorthodox, Hasidic, regular, nonsecular, Zionist. Christians here might be Catholic, Greek or Russian Orthodox, Armenian or one of the evangelical branches. The Muslims may be Shia or Shi’ite. There are also Druse and Bahá’í. Often the conflicts between sects of the same religion can be heated. In all of these faiths there are the usual variations in level of religiosity. To my surprise, 65% of Israelis identify as not religious, and 45% of the Arab population say the same.
But not in Jerusalem. Here, it could have been yesterday that Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice. People know where Jesus was arrested, and the exact path he walked with the soldiers back into the city. Mohammed ascended to heaven here. It is not just faith, it is history. No, not history as we think of it, more like a recital of a family story.
The history and the faith is intertwined with politics and blood. This site had a synagogue that was razed and replaced with a temple to Hercules, which was turned into a Byzantine church, which was replaced by a mosque, which was made into a Crusader church, which became a mosque again. Almost every change was accompanied by killing. It might have just been Arabs or Romans killing those who would not submit, or it might have been the annihilation of a community. Crusaders killed not just Muslims but also the Christians that had been living here for centuries. And everyone killed the Jews, until the Jews were the ones with the guns.
So I leave the Holy land with more understanding of the complexities, but no more comprehension of why some have such strong faith.
And my own faith? It remains as it was before: faith in the essential goodness that lies within most people, faith in love for family and friends, and faith that I can make a better world in some small way.