Reflections on the Holy Land in a time of war

At Ramadan, Easter, and Passover, a reflection on religion and returning to a path to peace.


With the observance of Ramadan underway, Passover just ahead, and Good Friday being observed this week as we head into Easter weekend, I was thinking about the Holy Land. And I was reflecting on all the violence that has descended there in the war in Gaza. My colleague, and our new publisher Charles Sennott, lived in the Holy Land for many years as a journalist and bureau chief for the Boston Globe, and he has covered the Middle East for much of the past 30 years. He has written several books on religion, including “The Body and The Blood: The Vanishing Christians of the Middle East and the Possibilities for Peace,” which was published in 2001. Charlie is the first to tell you he is just a reporter, not a historian, and definitely not a religious scholar, but he has a lot to share as a witness and observer of the Holy Land. He and I struck up a conversation about the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and I wanted to share our dialogue.

Q: This Friday will mark Good Friday for Christians. We are also in the middle of Ramadan on the Muslim calendar, and headed toward Passover on the Jewish calendar. What do these three faith traditions have in common? 

CS: They occur at the same time of year, and because each of these faith traditions has its own calendar, there are some years where the days are directly overlapping, as they were last year. This year that is not the case, but the common themes which tie them together are still there: sacrifice, renewal, and spiritual deliverance as a gift from God.

On Fridays in Jerusalem, there is an incredible moment in time where the three faiths are physically woven together on one path of ancient cobblestones. It happens just inside the Damascus Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem. We lived there for five years when I was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe, and we have two sons born there in the Holy Land. So we often had the chance to witness this.

The moment occurs on Fridays at noon when Christians are walking the Via Dolorosa or the “Way of Sorrow,” where Jesus carried the cross before he was crucified. There are usually processions with wooden crosses and prayers at each station of the cross. This is the same observance that happens once a year on Good Friday for Christians, which as you pointed out is this week, when Christians read the liturgy of the crucifixion and prepare for the hope and life that is the resurrection and the meaning of Easter.

At that same time on Fridays, Jews in prayer shawls are usually rushing to the Western Wall for prayers in the lead-up to Shabbat. The Western Wall with its huge Herodian stones marks the most sacred land in Judaism, and all that remains after the destruction of the Second Temple, which has lain at the heart of the longing of Jews to return to what they believe is the Promised Land, where they arrived after wandering in the desert led by Moses, an exodus out of Egypt which is at the heart of the meaning of Passover.

And also on Friday at noon, Muslims with prayer rugs are rushing for the traditional Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Ramadan marks a time of fasting and renewal of spirituality, and culminates by marking the time in which the Koran, the Muslim holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

It has always struck me just how powerful this overlapping time of faith is for all three Abrahamic faiths, and it is just tragic to see how this opportunity for connection is overlooked as the violence seems to be escalating in the Middle East.

The violence in the Holy Land seems to have entered into uncharted territory; do you see it that way? 

Sadly, yes, I think this is an unprecedented moment of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in their decades-long struggle over the Holy Land. I have covered the story since 1990, when I was in the region to cover the first Gulf War, and witnessed some of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that defined the first intifada, or uprising, in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. I was the Globe’s bureau chief when the second intifada erupted in the fall of 2000, and through the year ahead when the violence escalated. Back then the intifada simmered until at least 2005, and some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the clashes and the spate of bus bombings that were carried out by Hamas. It was horrific and gruesome and scary to live there during the violence, but the hope that the two sides might return to the historic Oslo peace accords signed in 1993 was always there in the balance. Now the peace process and its goal of two states living peacefully side by side is completely washed away.

Just think about the difference in the levels of violence now, in which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in just six months since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,200 Israelis and resulted in some 250 people, almost all Israeli, being taken hostage. They just truly do not compare on any level of violence. Even the Middle East wars in Israel — the 1948 War of Independence and 1967 Six-Day War — did not claim as many lives as the indiscriminate bombing we are seeing now in Gaza. Sadly, the history of the Middle East is measured in bloodshed, and we are hitting a tidal mark that is just unprecedented.

Do you think the different spring observances of Ramadan, Easter, and Passover can inform the search for peace?

I do think the inherent message of peace that exists in all three of these faiths that are so connected to the Holy Land is solid ground upon which to try to rebuild the peace process. President Jimmy Carter understood this deeply as an evangelical Christian who really knew his Bible, and he brought the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli leader Menachem Begin together to sign the historic Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, which is still holding to this day, albeit frayed and strained by the recent violence. The hard part these days is that extremists within all three faiths have the loudest voices, and are succeeding in dividing us all and undercutting interfaith dialogue. Trust among faiths has been blown apart by the extremist Islamist militants, the heavily armed Jewish settlers, and the powerful Christian evangelical lobby. The forces of religion have left the two sides, Israel and Palestine, deeply divided, but the heart of the conflict is truly not about religion, but about land and about finding a formula to share the land that all three faiths claim as holy. Christians are, sadly, a diminishing presence in the land where the faith was born. But the indigenous Christians, who are Palestinians of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, still represent approximately 2 percent of the overall population, and despite their diminished numbers they have a quiet, but potentially resonant, voice that deserves to be heard.

What do you think is the best way forward to end the violence?

I believe the only way forward is to try to get back to the specific requirements within the peace agreement, which calls for both the Israelis and Palestinians to recognize their legitimate rights to share the land as two separate states. This will be very difficult, and it will certainly take a very long time, but it is possible, and it will require not just political leadership but faith leaders to bring the people from both sides to see this as the only path forward, and to lead them down that path. The U.S. and Christian leaders around the world can and must play a role in this leadership, but it is truly only the people — Palestinian and Israeli, and members of all three faiths — who can take the steps required to find the way back to the path toward peace.



  1. Is this the new view of “local”? Does a ban on letters about Gaza only apply to Jews trying to undo the antisemitic lies told in this newspaper since October 7th? If I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out everything in this piece that is, you know, antisemitic because it is one-sided biased and promoting exaggerated guesses as fact, and ignores THOUSANDS of years of history, would it be censored like nearly everything else I write to object to this newspaper’s hosting of so much Jew hatred?

    How do you claim “indiscriminate bombing” and over “35,000” dead, quoting the Gaza Health Ministry run by Hamas? One side is chosen to quote here as unquestioning gospel, coincidentally the same one side that savagely declared an unwanted and unprovoked war, igniting the planned for violence that people of faith decry (and blame Israel for fighting too hard to exist at all).

    Perhaps someone a little more familiar with actual history would have a different point of view. Instead, this is an example of how history gets re- written. Tell one-sided lies and propaganda until they’re accepted as truth.

    Release the hostages. Get rid of Hamas. There will be no two state solution when repeated history tells us one of the states will never accept the existence of the other. Who among us would live with a wolf at the door? There would not be one dead Gazan were it not for Hamas, aided and abetted by UNRWA and every other Jew-hating “neutral” organization who either said and did NOTHING to condemn October 7th, or now stands behind the savagery as “resistance”, as “they deserved it” or worse, that “no one was tortured or beheaded” on October 7th.

    This is the world of acceptable Jew-hatred. It’s as old as history. You can write about it “nicely” to get across your point that Jews indiscriminately bomb helpless babies (blood libel) or you can praise severe mental illness as heroic and martyrs for the (Jew hating) cause. It’s all the same to those of us who see through antisemitism.

    In Israel, Muslims, Christians, and Jews of all colors and stripes and sexual orientation live, work, and worship side by side and in freedom to do so. There is no other Middle East Muslim country where that happens.

    Perhaps people could think about why violence descended into Gaza and that the ancient homeland of the Jews isn’t simply a “belief”. Archeological finds don’t lie. Hamas and their enablers do.

  2. There was never a “Palestinian” state or country. Palestinians are an invented people. The region some refer to as Palestine comes from a name the ancient Romans placed on this administrative region of the Levant in the Roman Empire. There was never a Palestinian Embassy, no date of origination, no body of laws, no first ruler, no currency, or map of any such nation. There was no Palestinian state. If there had been, one could read about its history and know who its presidents or prime ministers and political leaders were. What are its important cultural markers that make it different from other Arab cultures? Yet none of that exists.
    History shows an enduring Jewish presence in the land known as Israel today The name Palestine has provided confusion for nearly two thousand years. All people—Jewish, Arab, and anyone else living in the area—before 1948 were considered Palestinians. Excavating in this land uncovers artifacts of Jewish history and ancient Hebrew texts. Jews had ‘’palestinian’’ written into their passports before 1948. There

    It was a property of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years until 1918 when Great Britain took over the administration of the area after WWI. The State of Israel was organized by the United Nations in 1947 with Great Britain ceding the land for the new State. All previous residents of the region were to be citizens in the new State. The region had a population of Arab Muslims, Coptic Egyptians, Bedouins, Jews, mixed Europeans, and Lebanese.
    Under the Ottoman Empire years there were cities with Jewish and Arab majority populations and some lived and worked in cooperation with each other despite religious and cultural differences. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United Nations recognized various new governments in the Middle East; This plan was not accepted by the surrounding Arab nations. As Israel declared its independence from Britain on May 14, 1948, its legitimacy was recognized by several foreign governments and, within a year, by the UN. Local Arabs were invited to stay and become citizens of the newly formed state, and those who did are considered Israeli Arabs today. Local Arabs who sided with surrounding nations to destroy the newly formed state ended up losing this war and were displaced. The UN established refugee camps in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. These were places of refuge from a war that was lost.
    War results in loss of life and human tragedy. In most wars, those who are displaced as refugees have to make new lives for themselves elsewhere just as I did as a Soviet Refugee escaping to Germany and Australia as a displaced person and refugee. I lived as a displaced person in a camp for three years and only got citizenship after 19 years. When Japanese refugees fled to the United States, they eventually became American citizens. Conflicts created refugees from Korea and Vietnam. Any of those directly displaced by war were legitimately considered refugees. Once they were resettled, they became citizens of their new countries, and their children were citizens. Just like I did. However, the UN established (UNRWA) for those Arabs who were displaced from the Israeli War of Independence and kept these Arabs and all their descendants after them in perpetual refugee status even if they are third generation and have never even visited the land where their grandparents once lived. It is this multigenerational group of people who have claimed to be the true Palestinians. The claim to be indigenous creates the many debates in the current context of Hamas and Israel. This has led to preposterous claims of an indigenous Palestinian culture distinct from the rest of Arab culture. Again, if such a culture existed, who were its leaders?

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