Mt. Zion is a fascinating place. It is home to a highly diverse array of people and institutions, as diverse as Jerusalem itself. These range from the Dormition Abbey, the Diaspora Yeshiva, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, Oscar Schindler’s grave (in the Catholic cemetery), as well as the home of renowned Israeli sculptor, David Palombo, who created the gates to Israel’s Knesseth building. The most important of these sites is David’s Tomb, and the room of the last supper, situated one on top of the other, the only site in the world that is holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christians call the room on top of David’s Tomb the Cenacle, better known as Jesus’ Last Supper Room. It is regarded as the second important site for Christians in Jerusalem (after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and boasts 2 million pilgrims every year. For Jews it is the tomb of King David which is also the Prophet David (Nebi Daud) for Muslims, and hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims come to the site every year. The history of this holy site, and the history of Mount Zion, was very complicated over the last 1000 years, creating a great deal of local and international and inter-religious conflicts. Much tension has also arisen in the last few years over who visits what, and when, and to whom it all belongs. Seemingly a microcosm for all issues Jerusalem….
The Jerusalem Intercultural Center arrived to its beautiful location on Mount Zion in 2006. We remember that when we began to speak with our neighbors, we were shocked of the level of hostility among the organizations and people on this site. We once said that maybe creating peace on Mount Zion is equivalent to making peace in the whole world.
These tensions were brought to the fore in 2014, as the newly-appointed Pope sought to visit the Room of the Last Supper. At that time, the JICC was formative in bringing together representatives from all the different institutions on Mt. Zion, together with the police, to try and work out a solution. The Pope’s visit uncovered the deeper problem, and emphasized the need for action.
This process brought about the Window to Mt. Zion program, which began in 2015. Together with the Search for Common Ground Jerusalem Office, the project seeks to decrease conflict among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious communities in Jerusalem, of which Mt. Zion is a symbol. Its objectives are to: 1) Enhance collaboration among religious, security, municipal and national government stakeholders to address religious tensions in Jerusalem; 2) Increase coordination to protect holy sites on Mount Zion and of the people visiting them.
The project has a few main components:
- Regular meetings for the resident institutions of Mt. Zion – including the many Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations, cemeteries and other religious stakeholders, as well as municipality and government officials. These meetings have already managed already to increase communication and build trust. These regular multi-stakeholder meetings help to discuss and reduce religious tensions. Utilizing relationships built, emergency forum meetings are called, in the case of escalating tensions, to enable immediate planning and responses.
- Platform for joint actions and creating space to convene both for reactive and preventive action. For example, when the walls of the Dormition Abbey were painted with hateful graffiti, the Forum released a joint statement condemning the action – the first such statement in over 1,000 years (or, in fact, ever…)! In addition, during the annual interdenominational prayer service held at the Room of the Last Supper in January 2016, project volunteers provided welcome assistance (and an added feeling of safety) for this extraordinary service. Similarly, based on request of the Jewish religious groups on Mount Zion, a list of important and urgent repairs was formulated and negotiated with the relevant maintenance organizations. And, the Dajani Muslim cemetery, which has been deserted for some time, is being mapped and efforts are made to take care of and nurture it. In addition, the project provided assistance to the Diaspora Yeshiva’s new music center.
- Mount Zion Watch – there are now volunteers who patrol Mount Zion looking for issues to take care of, including incidents of hateful speech and vandalism. This action seeks to ensure greater protection of the religious communities and their holy sites on the Mount. As part of this action, more than 20 volunteers were trained to provide ongoing surveillance of Mt. Zion in order to protect people and holy sites and deter potential abusers. Volunteers regularly tour the area, and document their tours on the project’s web site: www.mountzion.org.il
- Partnership with the police – the project has developed a close relationship with the police, especially revolving around expected activities that could cause inter-religious tension. One example is a Christian prayer service that is expected to take place during Purim. In addition, all the policemen of the unit which is responsible for the Old City and Mount Zion are going through special training, facilitated by the Window to Mount Zion staff, to make them culturally competent in tackling inter-religious issues in this unique city. Mount Zion serves as a model for learning this issue.
- Raising awareness among the general public – pre-army groups from all around Israel are receiving a full day workshop about the issues of Mount Zion, in an effort to improve values of inter-religious tolerance in Israel. Project volunteers are also providing tours on different aspects of Mt. Zion to tour guides. The tolerance that is taught in these tours is passed on to the different tour groups.