Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune’s senior religion writer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is on assignment in the Middle East. Besides her deeper reporting, she is sharing shorter daily dispatches. This one is from Jerusalem.
Jerusalem • Amid rising religious tensions and an outbreak of violence, Israeli President Isaac Herzog welcomed prominent diplomats, Arab dignitaries, social activists and others to an interfaith iftar — a break-the-fast meal — at his home Wednesday night.
The 30 days of Ramadan, during which Muslims forgo food and drink from dawn to dusk, “is a month of humility and piety, of moderation, of compassion and charity, of faith in God, of family and community,” Herzog told the 200 invited guests. “Even as a non-Muslim, I feel a profound sense of identification and connection with the special spirit of the month.”
The Israeli leader went on to praise occasions like this one, saying, “When we take down the walls of separation, fear and alienation, and when we meet each other, face to face, we suddenly discover that we are not so different. We learn to respect the culture, values and customs of members of other religions. We discover that the distance between us is only that of an outstretched hand.”
He urged his listeners to “create more and more ambassadors of Islam, of Judaism and of Christianity, who do not obscure the differences between our religions but certainly extol the values of partnership and solidarity. … All of us, the children of Abraham … we who believe in fraternity, partnership and reconciliation, must stand together, shoulder to shoulder and with determination against hatred, against those who distort faith, against those who try to make us act against each other.”
Herzog appealed to the public to “stop with the provocations” and to the leaders “to not miss the opportunity for dialogue.”
It provided a glimpse for me at how this new president is addressing the religious concerns of this divided state, during the confluence of major religious holidays — Passover, Ramadan and Christian Holy Week — of the Abrahamic faiths.
At our table were three Arab captains of prominent soccer franchises, who spoke positively about being on teams that included players from all faiths.
“Everybody is friends with each other,” said Mohammad Abo Fani of the Maccabee Haifa team. “We are together, which is why we succeed in Israel.”
Earlier in the day, we visited the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem, where wholesale bakeries are finishing their preparations for matzo, or unleavened bread, as part of the upcoming Passover ritual.
We also took a taxi to Bethlehem, home of the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was believed to have been born. The site was first identified in A.D. 325 by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who converted to Christianity. The manger, as it were, is in an underground grotto or cave.
Again, few tourists were on hand Wednesday, allowing us to tour the entire compound — now shared by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church — almost by ourselves and in a short time.
Returning to Jerusalem, we had to pass through the security checkpoint that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem, where every car was stopped. It was startling to see fully armed Israeli soldiers there and at many other stations throughout the Old City.
Here’s hoping Herzog’s words become prophetic.