My heart grieves for the Holy Land

The tragic conflict in Israel, Palestine and the Lebanon, and the horrific cost in innocent human suffering, as we witness daily on our screens, is like a recurrent nightmare, from which we struggle in vain to awake.

The tragic conflict in Israel, Palestine and the Lebanon, and the horrific cost in innocent human suffering, as we witness daily on our screens, is like a recurrent nightmare, from which we struggle in vain to awake.

We have seen it all before so many times in the last 60 years, and it seems none of the parties learns anything from the past. The cycle of fear and violence rolls on and on, and hopes of any solution are dashed again and again by tit-for-tat responses.

Beirut was just recovering its former prosperity, and is now smashed to pieces. The Palestinians still live in poverty, isolated and under siege in their fractured apology for a state. And Israelis are denied the security of their borders, which might have enabled them to be a bit more magnanimous, and now feel the growing threat of regional powers Iran and Syria.

My heart grieves for these lands and their people. This area, which Christians know as the Holy Land, has been a big part of my life, as I have paid some 14 visits, often leading church groups on pilgrimage. I could echo the sentiments of Eric Gill, the 'arts and crafts' period artist in the 1930s who said that words "are absurdly inadequate to convey my overwhelming love for Jerusalem and Palestine. You cannot believe how lovely they are". I recall that Jesus himself, looking down over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, wept for the city "that knows not the things that belong to its peace".

Surely Jesus must be still weeping today.

Over all these years I have tried to understand both sides, and not to be partisan or apportion blame. I always urged my pilgrimage groups to leave their preconceptions behind, and we always tried to meet ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, and indeed members of the Arab Christian communities, inviting them to come and speak to us.

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Up to two million Israeli citizens since 1967, the Six-Day War, are Arabs, mainly Muslim, but 10pc of these Arabs are Christian, descendants of those who became Christian in the earliest years of the church, such as the Syrian Orthodox, the original church of Jerusalem, tracing its origins to James, the Lord's brother, its first Bishop. Its liturgical language to this day is Aramaic, the dialect Jesus himself spoke.

There are also Abyssinian Christians, stately black Africans from the first-ever independent Christian nation, Latins, as Catholics are called over there, Greek Orthodox, Copts, Armenians, Anglicans and Lutherans. All come under the heading 'Palestinian', and most are Arabs. The Jewish community is even more varied, from over 100 countries, the majority of them, known as Ashkenazis, from the countries of Western Europe, having escaped from persecution and holocaust, Russians, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, and many more, with their distinctive cultures.

But there is a strong minority of Sephardic Jews from the East, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, The Yemen, with their own traditions, more Arabic than Western, Yemenis swaying back and forth in prayer, as they did on their camels in the desert.

The ultra-Orthodox, all in black with side-curls, are fundamentalists, so extreme they do not even recognise, or pay taxes to, the secular State of Israel. The whole area is a huge melting pot of religions, races and cultures.

I say 'huge'. But of course it is really very small. If the coastline were superimposed on the south coast of England for comparison, so that Tel Aviv was at Worthing, then Jerusalem would be where Croydon is, and the Dead Sea would stretch from Watford to Colchester. The most northerly point in Israel, Mount Hermon would be Weston-super-Mare.

Topographically, it is also a land of great contrasts, fertile valleys and arid wilderness, ranging from snow-capped Hermon at 9,000 ft in the north (shared by Lebanon, Israel and Syria), below which at Dan the Jordan river bubbles up like a glacial stream, to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, 1,300ft below sea-level, where there is little life at all.

I remember well my church groups' impressions of Arabs and Israelis after a week with each. The Israelis they admired for their hard work and productivity, and for making the desert blossom like a rose, but they found them a bit hard and proud, perhaps understandably. The Arabs they loved for their friendliness and hospitality, and their sensitivity to Christian sites and beliefs. Our guides were usually Arab. "Can he really be a Muslim?" they used to say to me. "He talks about Jesus so reverently, as if he believes, and he bows his head when he comes into church".

The Holy Land is sacred to all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All trace their descent from Abraham, and all have much in common, sharing the same God and Father. If only the holy places could be free for access by all. But that will need a political solution first.

Meanwhile we can only repeat with the Psalmist:

"O pray for peace of Jerusalem: peace be within thy walls and plenteousness within thy palaces."

And let us embrace within that prayer all the peoples of the Holy Land.