Although it’s Ash Wednesday, and Jerusalem has been revered as sacred in Christianity for some 2,000 years now, you won’t see a lot of people with ash crosses on their foreheads here today. It is the Jewish state, after all.
One has to go looking for Christians in the Old City, or in nearby Bethlehem -- two of Christianity‘s holiest places -- if you want to see believers in any numbers.
The Old City, the ancient, walled part of Jerusalem that houses the holy sites of three religions, is the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been buried. Also within its narrow winding streets is the Via Dolorosa, which traces Jesus’s last steps before his crucifixion. .
Overall, Jerusalem has almost eight synagogues for every Christian church and two churches for every mosque. But along the Via Dolorosa, Christian pilgrims walk faithfully, sometimes carrying a large wooden cross to identify with Jesius’s suffering.
Bethlehem, a small, predominantly-Muslim town five miles south of Jerusalem, is where Jesus is believed to have been born in a grotto. Christian pilgrims flock to Bethlehem, too, a central West Bank town of some 30,000 run by the Palestinian National Authority. You need to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, although it‘s just down the road.
One of the oldest Christian communities in the world lives in Bethlehem, although it has shrunk in recent years due to emigration. The town basically lives off Christian tourism.
Although Jerusalem is such a holy place for Christians, only 2 percent of the population of 770,000 is Christian. Some 65 percent of Jerusalem’s population is Jewish and 32 percent Muslim.
And the living together ain’t easy.
“For the Christian community in Israel, the environment remains inhospitable,“ said a story in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post , reporting on anti-Christian graffiti that was scrawled on the walls of a Jerusalem Baptist Church this week.
Vandals wrote “Death to Christianity” and other insults on the church walls. Vehicles nearby were also defaced. Israeli police said they were investigating a possible link between that case and another recent case of graffiti on a Greek Orthodox monastery. Christian clergy have also been the victims of spitting attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Old City.
The Jerusalem Post quoted Hana Bendcowsky, program director for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian relations on the attacks: “I don’t think a majority would engage in such a vandalistic act, but it is a manifestation of anti-Christian feeling in Israeli society. The main problem is ignorance, a lot of stereotypes and the history of Jewish-Christian relationships in Europe that influence the attitude of Israelis toward local Christians.”