A commitment to multiculturalism

November 24, 2016 23:22

The smell of frying doughnuts alongside the sights and sounds of the Christmas markets, Chanucah songs and Christmas carols, lights bearing symbolism for all the religions at this darkest time of the year, Jews, Christians and Muslims celebrating side by side in a joyous medley - this is the sensory mix characteristic of the winter holiday season in Israel. This is especially so in cities such as Haifa and Nazareth, which have large Christian communities living alongside the Jewish and Muslim population.

In Haifa, they have even established a "Holiday of Holidays", bringing together all the residents of our multicultural city, where we display a giant menorah alongside a Christmas tree, lit up for the entire city to see.

These lights symbolise the religious tolerance of the citizens in the only country in the Middle East where Christianity is growing - from 34,000 in 1948 to over 160,000 today.

Just as in Haifa, in Jerusalem religious freedom is paramount. Israel's governments over the years have strictly guarded the freedom of all religions to worship.

In recent months, however, this most sensitive of cities, where the slightest spark can ignite a firestorm, has been the centre of a wave of incitement and terror.

While freedom of religion was not always respected in Jerusalem under previous authorities, Israel's official policy, as clarified in its Declaration of Independence, protects freedom of religion and worship for all faiths.

Israel places the utmost importance on facilitating worship by Muslims and Christians in their respective holy sites, including in Jerusalem. Moreover, Jewish holy sites (among them the Western Wall), are open to visitors of all faiths, as are the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. In the past year alone, as more than 3,500,000 Muslims have worshipped on the Temple Mount, only 12,000 Jews and 200,000 Christians have visited it.

Since Jerusalem's reunification in 1967, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Temple Mount at fixed times as tourists.

This has been the case since Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan delineated the status quo after the Six-Day War. Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reiterated that this will remain the status quo, and the priority of this and every government is the maintenance of peace and community cohesion in Israel.

Unfortunately, Palestinian leaders and media have been promulgating incitement over recent months, telling their followers that the Israeli government is trying to change this situation. These lies have influenced terrorists to go on knifing, shooting and car-ramming rampages against Israelis across the country, murdering 22 Israeli Jews and Arabs (at the time of writing) and injuring dozens more, all in the name of an imagined threat to the al-Aqsa mosque.

Nobody is safe - a 70-year-old grandmother, a 13-year-old on a bike or a one-year-old baby waiting at a bus stop are all easy targets. All this while Israeli forces risk their lives to protect the rights of Muslims to worship on the Mount and prevent others from doing so.

We at the Israeli embassy in London work throughout the year with various faith communities to reflect Israel's religious tolerance. In addition to producing a Christian newsletter that is read by communities in the UK and abroad, we travel the length and breadth of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to meet different communities particularly grassroots activists of all faiths and none.

At Passover, Ambassador Daniel Taub held a Bible learning session with senior Jewish and Christian clergy. This past summer, in our outreach to Muslim leaders, Taub hosted an Iftar dinner/ 17 of Tammuz breakfast at the official residence.

Our strategy for 2016 aspires to yet more outreach to a variety of faith communities in the UK, working with the Jewish community to nurture an environment where our common values can help us to overcome our differences.

Our aim, together with others in the Jewish community and in Israel, is to enrich and strengthen the ties that bind decent people of all faiths, who believe in coexistence and harmony, who stand for the values of freedom of worship and expression for all.

Rony Yedidia-Clein is Director of Public Policy at the Israeli Embassy in London

November 24, 2016 23:22

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