My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Basilica of the Annunciation and Interfaith observations in Nazareth: From our Bus Called Hope

Nazareth was an insignificant village in Jesus' time. It was not on the Via Maris trading route and is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. Unlike other towns, it was not fortified against the Romans in the first century, there being no need. As Nathaniel said to Phillip before meeting Jesus: "Is there anything good comes out of Nazareth?" (John 1: 46).

Like Cana, Nazareth came under Israeli control in 1948, and the communities are now mixed Muslim/Christian, although there is very clearly bad feeling and seemingly a certain lack of tolerance and respect from some of the Muslim population here. We hear a story about a mosque which was to be built alongside and dominating the Christ Church, the plans for which were finally thwarted but only after quite a struggle by the Franciscans, who threatened to withdraw from many of the Christian pilgrim sites which they maintain. We see a protest sign on our walk through the town to the church, and hear stories of megaphones being used that disturb the Christian pilgrims on Fridays. There is clearly much tension between the different faith communities and the Christians are increasingly vulnerable as their numbers decrease with families moving out if they can to safer places. We are told that in 1946 Christians represented 35% of the population. By 1967 this had reduced to 18% and now they only form 1.5% of the population. In Jericho there are now only 10 -15 Christian families. The St George's Catholic School in Jerusalem is dominated now by Muslims although it tries hard to attract Christians. No wonder Palestinian Christians value our support so much. We must not forget their situation. See the Kairos initiative in an earlier post.
We have lunch at the Holy Land Restaurant. I thought the spaghetti the other day was bad. Today the veggie option is even worse and apart from the vegetable soup I just cannot face and do not want the massive plate of roast vegetables served to me. But the coconut cakes afterwards are delicious and I eat as many as the others do not want!! It seems I was unlucky. The restaurant seems to get good reports on line.
Our next stop, the Basilica of the Annunciation, is beautiful. Built on three levels, it has the most stunning modern stained glass windows, various images of the Madonna upstairs and all around the outside courtyard are mosaics of the Virgin Mary contributed by many different countries - with their individual takes on interpretation. The German mosaic for example shows two children with the Madonna in front of the Berlin Wall. This evocative modern Basilica has been built over what is claimed to be part of the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of the largest churches built in the Holy Land for 800 years. We go down into the sacred Grotto, said to be where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
the Cupola in Basilica of the Annunciation
The wonderful Cupola in the roof of the Basilica represents a lily rooted in heaven, the petals of the flower pointing down to the shrine beneath.
The beautiful Italian mosaic above the altar is one of the world's largest, showing Jesus with arms outstretched beside Peter, with the crowned Virgin, the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the Father in heaven.
Visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation is an awesome way to end the day, but our pilgrimage is not quite at an end. On our way back to our hotel in Tiberias for our last night there, we can see the Mount of the Transfiguration, Mt Tabor to our right - A dome shaped mountain venerated since the fourth century as the traditional site of the Transfiguration (Luke 9: 28-36). Our guide tells us that three separate Bedouin tribes live there. Peter asked Jesus if they should they make three dwellings/shelters, one each for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Jesus is immediately hidden in a cloud, and a voice from Heaven says "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." And when the cloud evaporates, Jesus is left on his own: Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen.
Italian mosaic above the altar in the
Basilica of the Annunciation
view of the sacred shrine from above

There used to be three churches on the mount, before they were destroyed by the Persians in AD 614. Now there are two churches, Franciscan and Greek Orthodox, the latter dedicated to Elijah. The Franciscan church has two side chapels dedicated to Elijah and Moses respectively. The Mount rises out of the Plain of Jezreel, which is so fertile that three crops can be grown on the same ground each year. No wonder it is regarded as the "Bread basket of Israel" today.
It is such a shame that we only have time to view this place from afar.
Another day, another visit to the Holy Land, I must find time to explore all that this interesting and meaningful mountain can offer....

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