Holy Trinity or Idolatry? – A tale of two cities

Let me start by saying that being in Jerusalem was a dream come true for me. From walking the path that Jesus followed down from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, to being in the upper room where it is said that the last supper was held. I certainly had my moment in there, an overwhelming connection to Christ and a sorrow for what he must have been feeling on that fateful night. To walk the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and be at the foot of Calvary where my Lord was crucified was an experience I will be forever grateful for and hold very dear in my heart.

 
I was impressed by the diversity of faces among the faithful believers: Africans, Australians, Europeans, South East Asians, Indians, Sri Lankans and Americans too. Christianity is a faith that has spread through the ages to all corners of the earth. This is a place where pilgrims come together on this holy land to pay homage to Christ their Lord and commemorate the holiness of Easter. It was certainly worth the trip.


On the other hand, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches that were in this seemingly small town. For example, wherever there is even a hint of Jesus-related history a church has been erected. Nearly every Station of the Cross is marked by a chapel or church. The tomb of Jesus is surrounded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which five denominations hold services in their sections. Fun fact: these five denominations, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox (both Syrian and Ethiopians), and the Egyptian Coptic Christians cannot agree on anything to the point where for centuries two Muslim families have held the responsibility of the keys that are for opening and locking up. It is a tradition that is viewed as an incredible honour for the people of these two families. I bet the Anti-Islamist Christians don’t know that one.


Even in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born is marked and so is the manger which was five feet to the left. What I found at these sites were faithfuls throwing themselves at the ground, kissing the stone of Calvary, kissing the stone where the manger lay, kissing the stone where Jesus was prepared for burial etc. etc. Now I’m all for paying respect and I was moved and in rapture by my faith whilst in Jerusalem. However, I couldn’t shake the thought of idolatry.


Idolatry, and the fact that the places and symbols of Jesus and his life seem to be worshipped with such vigour, I found unnecessary. I love Jesus but I did not feel compelled to kiss the ground where it is said he was born, or where he was condemned by Pontius Pilot. I ponder; it is a fine line between worship in memorial and idolatry of the symbolism of Christ. The crucifix hangs around my neck, yet if it were not there I would still have the love of Christ in my heart. St Christopher is in my passport wallet but I do not worship him. The foundation stone lay beneath the walls of a mosque but it does not remove its importance to me and my faith.


So perhaps in this Holiest of Holy land we need to separate ourselves from the history and idolatry of the locations and remember that the love of Christ or the teachings of Mohammed or the Torah is what is important. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the stone where Jesus lay or where Mohammed ascended or the Wall of Temple of Solomon is part of this land’s history. 

The legacy is not the bricks and mortar; it is in the hearts and minds of the billions of followers who continue the great work of Abraham as his great nation.


That is the promise of God. Not let’s all fight over a geographical location despite the united origin of our people. Or not let’s all fight over who has responsibility for the bloody keys.
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Home – in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Wow! I was so nervous about heading to the other side of the green line, thanks to all the fear mongering from the media and people I had met. Boy, were they wrong. The people of Palestine were amongst the warmest I have ever met. I stayed with Ibrahim and his wife Aya in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Gotta love Airbnb, they really do give you the local experience. This couple bent over backwards for me and ensured my every need was met.


Ibrahim was also a driver and he took me exploring to Jericho, the Dead Sea and St George Monastery. He also wandered the streets of Bethlehem with me for hours to show me the other camps, the wall and some other key places that highlight the history and struggle of this region. Upon arriving, Ibrahim met me at the checkpoint where the other taxi drivers had rustled me up a seat in the shade while I waited – far from the harassment promised by the naysayers.


Aya had gone out so I was dropped to her at her mum Afaf’s house, where the whole family greeted me. Shisha, tea and cake, it was Abdallah’s (Aya’s brother) birthday and I slotted in like I always belonged there. No sign of feeling like an outsider, no awkward stares or questions on why I wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Just warm Palestinian hospitality from a wonderful woman and her tribe.


I asked probing questions on the occupation and their thoughts behind that. Speaking freely Ibrahim and his family (he is one of 14!) told me of the struggle of their family after his mother died when he and his siblings were still little and how the Christian brothers and sisters had taken a few of them in to school them and shelter them too. They told me about their land and villages that have since been occupied by illegal Jewish settlements and how they wish to return Insha’Allah (God Willing) and that that day will come.


The Dheisheh Refugee Camp came into existence 70 years ago when the UN leased the land for the displaced Palestinians and hosts 13,000 people today. Ibrahim advised that the UN holds a 99-year lease to this place so they feel secure for now. “But what happens after that?” I ask. “No one knows,” is his reply, with a distant hint of defeat. Aws and Ayham, his beautiful boys, greeted me daily with kisses and cuddles and loved to sit with me as I wrote in my room in the mornings.


There was a family get together nearly every night, one evening Ibrahim parked the car and ushered me in. I waltzed in to the house of his brother whom I had not yet met, I did meet about 30 members the day before at dinner but not this one. As I entered, a band of men looked up at me (the blonde stranger). I uttered a confident Salam Alaikom and one of the women from the day before came out to greet me with a joyous and enthusiastic smile. I felt like I could read the minds of the men (who is this chick, oh well she’s here now… tea?).
We sat in the back room (the second lounge, and as in all Arab households) and the food just kept coming and the giggling and chatter of the women competed with the stories and laughter of the men in the other room. Not segregated on purpose or for tradition, more like when you’re at a barbeque and the men stand by the fire with their beers and the women chatter by the salads. Same thing here, men and women float between the two rooms casually. I’m happy to be in my section, because we’ve got the kids and they are so adorable.


I was so impressed with the openness of this family and the no-nonsense approach to their lives. They are not in the best situation; they are treated as second class citizens in their own land. Aya is not permitted to enter Israel. No explanation, just not permitted, and Afaf explained to me the heartache of losing her husband due to the restriction on his identity card which resulted in him succumbing to his heart attack at the checkpoint whilst the soldiers held back his ambulance. It’s a total breach of human rights here yet no one can enforce the law which has many infringements here. Despite all that, they laugh, play and crack on the best they can and I admire that greatly.


A Muslim family who hold their belief in Allah and the teachings of Mohammed proudly whilst not being dogmatic followers, they discussed religion openly with me and took me to meet a Christian Brother, Joe a founding member of the Bethlehem University among others for my Faith Chat collection for YouTube. Nothing was a bother and I still chat to them every week.


If you want to go to Palestine, my advice is: don’t hesitate. Go. It’s safe, it’s beautiful, the people are amazing and the food is to die for.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Escaping the Crowds in Krabi

On an exploration into Buddhism, I head to Thailand; one of the biggest Buddhist populations on earth. I seek the local’s way and I stumbled across Aoluek Paradise. 

Inland from the beaches of Krabi I spent a serene week there in what was supposed to be rest, relaxation and writing. Which was all three, but also an eye opener into the life of a local and how spectacular the scenery really is in southern Thailand.
Greeted with my name on a sign at the airport (a complete rarity when you’re a backpacker), Kowit’s place is an hour out of town and set in the jungle. 


I arrived to a bamboo loft style bungalow and settled in for the night listening to the frog’s melody and leaping with excitement at the sight of the fireflies. I’m there to finish my manuscript and what a find. There isn’t a tourist for miles and Kowit and the gang prepared three square meals a day for next to nothing, all delicious and spiced to perfection.


In between chapters I roam freely along the grounds and even sneak out for a day trip to completely deserted islands along with my fellow guests, the Danish couple who are Middle Eastern and the gorgeous girls from Singapore and our mellow French guide who went to Thailand to volunteer for a month (six years ago). With literally not another soul in sight, we ate our prepared lunch on the deserted beach, frolicked in the pristine waters off the bay and lay on the bough of the boat to watch the sunset. It was an incredible day and probably the highlight of my trip. I will always remember it for the simplicity of the day, the spectacular company and the breathtaking scenery we had all to ourselves. 


I visited Phi Phi during my trip and yes, those islands are technically more beautiful but for the price of wall-to-wall tourists, I’ll take Aoluek’s day out every time.

 
At night, we sat by the bar whilst Kowit entertained us with his many talents. Fire twirling, tight rope walking and a seasoned muso who made the Thai melodies float over the lake into a dreamy backing track to our family dinner. 

There were temples nearby which I explored and tried to understand the importance of Buddhism and heights, given the 1300 steps to the Tiger Cave Temple. (Apparently immense beauty and isolation provides the perfect place for meditation). Worth all the sweat and hyperventilation to capture the views though and perhaps if I was a revered enlightened one I would want to be enshrined in places this beautiful as well.


I highly recommend staying out of the fray in Krabi and dropping into Phi Phi for a day trip for a look then back to the serenity and local hospitality of Aoluek’s paradise. The place where my first manuscript was finished. OMG! Coming soon!

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Surprisingly No Oms

Thailand – the Theravada Buddhist capital of the world. I arrived in Chiang Mai for the most holy day in Buddhism – Vaisakha. The day Buddha was born, found enlightenment and died. Years apart of course, but miraculously on the same day of the same lunar month.

 In Chiang Mai, the tradition is to walk 17 kilometres up Doi Suthep Mountain at night to arrive before a dawn ceremony begins. I braved the hill and all throughout was greeted by volunteers giving away free food, ice cold drinks, sweet treats and words of encouragement to the tens of thousands of pilgrims who ascended together in a steady stream to worship Buddha on this important day.


Tired and weary I arrived to a sea of foot massage stalls set up on the street – yes please! Also, to the crush of the crowd adorning the serpent stair case to the temple. After a snail paced crawl up those 300 steps I arrived at the glittering gold monuments of Buddha. I took my incense, candles and lotus flower and offered them in thanks to the statue and prayed for mankind, given I think we need it sometimes. People were strewn about getting a little bit of shuteye before the rain came down and the ceremony was done.

I escaped to the safety of the Songthaews (Red Truck Transport) thanks to my sneaky leap into the standing room only section (aka the step outside clinging to the roof racks but at least I’m dry.) In the traffic a young man insisted I swap with him and he braves the elements. I like that the entire town came out to this event and it had all the spirit of Chinese New Year, with dances, and singers/bands along the journey and makeshift temples and monks handing out blessings via holy water and white cotton bracelets (sai sin). This bracelet is for health and protection, my two favourite prayers and white to signify purity. I thanked the monk who gave me mine and continued up the mountain.


I slept through the morning rituals after getting back to my homestay at 7am and woke just in time for the candle ceremony at Wat Chedi in downtown. The city’s most popular temple, the ceremony was simply gorgeous. Monk’s chanted and prayed with the crowds within the temple and I’m reminded to light my incense and candle again ready for the Wien Tien (Walking Circulation of the temple three times. Three – of course!). 

Then we all gathered out in the grounds and the monks led us into a garden on the lake with their candles and blessings while the crowd watched on in silence. This ceremony was again in memorial of the ‘Enlightened One’ and whilst it was beautiful, it was also ceremonious and full of tradition.


I keep thinking, but he’s just a man. Maybe the monastery will have the answers.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Pilgrim of the Week – Brother Joe

An American Brother who first came to Palestine in the 80s, Brother Joe was instrumental in the set up and evolution of the Bethlehem University. A Christian University, first of its kind in Palestine. Today it caters to the higher education needs of a 70% Muslim majority student body. Brother Joe explained to me how the uni continued to educate through the intifada by congregating and teaching in groups of less than 10 so as to not be accused of being a ‘political group’. A modest and humble man who has contributed so much to this community and the people in it. What a legend! Keep your eye out for my Faith Chat with Brother Joe on YouTube in the coming weeks.

Holy Land #2 – Mohammed on the Hill

The second of the Abrahamic religion is of course Islam. And similarly with Christianity and Judaism, some seriously important stuff went down in Jerusalem for Muslims. The foundation stone for starters, the holiest site on earth, enshrined by the Dome of the Rock. An impressive building on top of what remains of the Western Wall. It was built in the 7th century when Umayyad rule came through.


The Islamic rulers wanted to ensure the grandeur of the place where it is said that Mohammed not only ascended to heaven, but also where he received the instructions for Muslim prayer (salat) after his famous night journey that is celebrated every year. These instructions are still practiced today by Muslims globally. I was surprised to learn that in fact originally Muslims faced Jerusalem when they prayed before changing to Mecca in 623 CE.

(Not in Israel. Just a beautiful shot from India)

Of course, this site is a bone of contention because the Christians believe that this is where Adam was created from the earth and therefore the beginning of creation of all humanity. Also it is said that this is the place of the sacrifice of Abraham according to Jewish belief. Further the Temple of Solomon and the second temple once stood in this place. So, if the Romans destroyed the temple and the Jews rebuilt despite them and then the Muslims came through and honoured the site but in a different way, why do we have to fight over it? The building that stands is incredible and next to it is the Al Asqa Mosque.


Like everywhere in Jerusalem, there is tight security entering the Dome of the Rock and strict observance of modest dress is enforced (similar to that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall). Thousands of Muslims come to pray every day and when I was there a wedding was in full swing with the happy couple posing for photos on the steps of the dome.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Unfortunately non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter anymore, but that’s only because a Christian extremist try to burn it down once so they pulled the pin. Fair enough.
Wandering the Muslim quarter daily (that’s where all the best shawarma is), what I loved was seeing women in hijabs selling crucifixes, skull caps and prayer beads! The population of Muslims in the old city is twice that of the Jewish, Armenian and Christian quarters put together, and right in the centre of the Jewish quarter is a mosque that was rebuilt by a Jewish family whose son died and had converted. These little glimpses of unity are inspiring and show the potential for harmony in this land.


For centuries, the Islamic community here has co-existed with Jews and Christians alike. Like previously mentioned it is the Holy Land – not the land of Jews, not the land of Jesus, not Muslim’s centrepiece and the people I spoke to both on the Palestinian side and Israel side just want to live their lives. This land is not up for sale, it belongs to the people who have occupied it for centuries. Just like the conquered predominantly Christian west or the predominantly Islamic Middle East and North Africa or the Hindu and Buddhist conquests in Asia.


That’s history. Must we still fight? Have we learnt nothing from our forefathers?

To divide and conquer is a thing of the past and I hope the powers that be see that because as far as Islam is concerned the Dome is not going anywhere. And why should it? We won’t destroy Roman buildings from their conquests?
Yours in faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim

Holy Land #1 – Jewish Extremism

Let’s get this straight. Zionism is a movement for extremist Jews from all over the world to occupy a land that isn’t necessarily rightfully theirs. Yes? I’m gonna find out.
This article is NOT an attack on Judaism or Jewish people; it is part of a series of ALL religious extremist groups. This is my perspective after spending time in the country known as Israel or Occupied Palestine, depending on who you ask.
I spent seven days on the Israel side of the green line and seven days in Palestine. I stayed with Jews, Christians and Muslims who were mostly born in the area. 

Fact Check! 

  • Pre-1948 the entire area was called Palestine. A name that dates back to the biblical term of the people who lived there: Philistines.
  • This region has been occupied for centuries by the Romans, Ottomans, Umayyad, British and others; now by the Zionists (Israel)
  • In 1948 the British Empire ‘gave’ this land to the Zionist movement, it was:
  1. Not theirs to give – kind of like Pakistan. (I’ll let you know how that trip goes). Or Australia for that matter. That’s politics for ya.
  2. Propagated with the lie that this was “A land without people for a people without land” – there were people, they’re called Palestinians. They’ve lived here for centuries and many of them still have the key to their old homes

  • Israeli (Zionist) leaders then opened the door for any person of Jewish descent to come here and have citizenship – Aliyah they call it (Google it if you want to learn more). So the majority of these people actually already have a home country. I’m confused, as a Catholic do I get automatic citizenship in the Vatican? 

Don’t be fooled with the ‘persecuted Jews needed a homeland’ bollocks either. Israel in 2017 is not populated with descendants of European holocaust survivors. It’s crammed full of Russian, American and Canadians among others from very safe and inclusive countries, all of which are happy to have them. Hence why no one gives up their original passport. 

Note: I met a Canadian woman who had been living in Jerusalem for 37 years and was just going to pick up her renewed Canadian passport. Interesting.

    • Palestinians are now trapped in their allocated section most of which is controlled by the Zionists anyway, sorry, Israeli forces. Treated as second class citizens in their homeland (because they are from here and so were their grandparents and their great great grandparents.) Subjected to difficult economic situations, limited services and many in makeshift neighbourhoods (camps) set up by the UN. 

    Note: I met a woman whose husband died because he did not have ‘permission’ to enter Jerusalem. Not cool!

      • Yes the Palestinians left their properties, in fear that they would be killed. Not just because they fancied a change. So that’s not a green light to bulldoze homes and build illegal Jewish settlements.

       Note: The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and against international law! Yet they’re still there. Why? Because Israel has all the guns, literally. They distribute the ammunition to the Palestinian Authority. What the?

        I could go on and on. Spend an hour and do some research. It’s not black and white.


              What’s happening in the Holy Land is not dissimilar to the Nazi regime in WW2 Europe in principal. Okay, there are no gas chambers. But Palestinians are fenced in to their territory like a prison; guarded day and night with less rights and freedom of movement than those with an Israeli passport. Sound familiar? This ethnicity gets this ‘badge’ while the others get another. Shall we get the tattoo gun out (too soon?). 

              Even I know what that discrimination feels like after being subject to an excessive search resulting in my human rights being violated at the hands of the arrogant and disgraceful airport security. As I watched those on an Israeli passport or notably dressed in Jewish manner waved through to a much more lenient check. What, so no Israeli is a risk to terrorism? Wow. Reverse racial profiling? Let’s talk about that later.

              The chosen ones. Really?

              Now let’s talk locals. I spoke to many Jewish people, loads in fact. I did find it difficult to talk to anyone who was actually born in Israel though. But alas they do exist.
              I had dinner at a Rabbi’s house, prayed at the Western Wall, celebrated Mimouna and participated in a Seder dinner. A Seder dinner is an annual celebration of the exodus of the Jews from being enslaved and treated like second class citizens by the Egyptians (oh the irony). I got into quite a hot debate with a Moroccan Jew (not born in Israel), an American Christian, and a Russian Jew residing in Jerusalem.(I know sounds like a joke, a Jew, Russian and a Christian walk into a bar). They continued to throw scripture at me and the old line – the Jews were promised this land from God. Ah, okay, so God said you could break the commandments and steal, murder and dishonour your neighbour. Why didn’t you say so? Jesus said that he died for my sins so can I just go on a rampage then…

              I did have a lengthy conversation with a few Israeli-born men. When I challenged them on their thoughts about the Palestinian people and whether they should be treated with such contempt, they all sung from the same hymn sheet like brainwashed robots. They said that it is written that this land would be returned to the Jewish people. Also that God was protecting the Jewish people to enable this prophecy to come true. Okay great. I thought he protected everyone and that wasn’t the question that I asked.


              Don’t get me wrong. I understand that thousands of years ago the land of Israel existed and was a Jewish centre.But that’s the history of the world. Do we want to erase centuries of conquests and reclaim ancient lands? If that’s the case the whole planet has a refugee problem, from Australia, to Europe, South America, the US and beyond.


              Anyhoo I’m off to read Ezekiel; apparently it’s all in there. Stay tuned, I intend on getting to the bottom of this.
              Yours ‘very confused’ in faith,

              The Unlikely Pilgrim