JERUSALEM -- This is no place for an atheist or even a suave
agnostic. From my window on the top floor of the massive King David Hotel, I
am looking out on a stone heap that is thousands of years old, the Old City
of Jerusalem. Traffic swarms around its walls. Antennas sprout from the old
roofs of the city. Airplanes fly overhead. Still, religion dominates here --
sometimes in ways that might persuade even the most obdurate nonbeliever to
give God a second look, and other times in ways that could get a nonbeliever
locked away in the hoosegow. Some religious people can be very intolerant.
As Christmas approaches, American Christians might take note of
the intolerance here. Their sacred shrines -- and some belonging to
Judaism -- are under threat from the Islamofascists of the Palestinian
Authority. What is more, the Christian population of the West Bank is not
being treated as hospitably by Yasser Arafat's colleagues as, say, the
Muslim population of Detroit is being treated.
First, let me explain why an atheist's faith or faithlessness
might be shaken here in Jerusalem. Most atheists and agnostics put great
stock in science. Unfortunately, archaeology is no longer on their side. For
over a generation, archaeologists -- led by such distinguished scholars as
Kathleen Kenyon -- have been unearthing ruins that, as the historian Paul
Johnson writes, have "given us renewed confidence in the actual existence of
places and events described in the early Old Testament books."
Just the other day, an Israeli archaeologist took me through a
3,800-year-old passageway where old Jerusalem's early inhabitants, the
Jebusites, and later King David collected water for what became the old city
of Jerusalem. Then he showed me a relatively new dig in the passageway,
whose characteristics perplexed archaeologists until someone remembered a
passage in the Book of Kings.
I was standing precisely where King David had Solomon anointed
3,000 years ago. I am by nature a skeptic, but cross-referencing the hard
evidence of archaeology with Biblical passages makes a strong case. The
archaeological site is called Ir David. It constitutes a massive endorsement
of Biblical authenticity and is eminently deserving of book-length
There are other digs in the Old City that are not so
encouraging. Whereas the Israelis respect sacred places, the Palestinian
Authority does not. Their police have taken over the Temple Mount with the
sufferance of the Israeli government that controls it. Against the will of
Jews and Christians, who judge it sacred, and of archaeologists, who
consider it worthy of careful study, these religious bigots are carting away
tons of ancient earth to build a huge mosque for political purposes. They
are defiling a sacred and archaeologically invaluable location on a
3,000-year-old site to establish a political claim to the site, and no one
is stopping them.
The desecration is not unprecedented. Think back four years ago,
to when the Taliban conspired in the destruction of the ancient Buddhist
statues in Afghanistan.
I know our government tells us that Islam is a very tolerant and
pious religion, but I see many signs that it is neither. The fact is that
here in a region where Israeli political control has preserved sacred
shrines for all three of the monotheistic religions, Palestinian Muslims
under the Palestinian Authority set up after the Oslo Accords have
desecrated holy places, brutalized non-Muslims and driven Christians from
Bethlehem after indulging in some gerrymandering that would stir admiration
in an American politician.
Surely you remember last April when Palestinian militants
(gunmen) took over Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, booby-trapped its
entrance and terrorized 150 worshipers for 39 days while eating the clerics'
provisions, quaffing their booze -- so much for Allah's blue laws --
stealing church valuables such as gold crucifixes and using sacred
scriptures for toilet paper (ah, cleanliness). That sort of barbarism is not
Earlier, Arafat summarily seized a Greek Orthodox monastery near
the Church of the Nativity to serve as his occasional residence. In Hebron
in 1997, his thugs seized Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery,
evicting its monks and nuns.
Since his latest Intifada began in 2000, he has regularly
stationed his artillery and sharpshooters in Christian towns near churches
to either shield his gunmen or bring Israeli fire down on places of worship.
Returning to our archaeological theme, in Jerusalem Palestinian
Authority officers have endangered the walls of the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher by attempting to construct a facility on its roof, a latrine --
again, this Islamic fascination with bodily functions.
The destruction of holy sites runs apace with the destruction of
Christian communities on the West Bank. Sometimes it is through heavy-handed
political schemes as when Arafat's Palestinian Authority incorporated 30,000
Palestinians into the municipality of Bethlehem, changing the Christians' 60
percent majority to a minority. Sometimes it is through terror. News
accounts mount of Christians being beaten, raped, murdered and charged by
protections rackets. In Bethlehem and even in Jerusalem, Christian numbers
dwindle. There has been very little complaint about these bigoted acts, but
any curious observer here in this ancient city does not have to research
very sedulously to find out the depressing facts.
The Holy Land has suffered Roman legions, crusaders, the armies
of the Prophet, Turks, two World Wars and more. But its archaeological
treasures have endured. Its religious minorities have had good times and
bad. Now both face bad times, unless civilized forces can maintain the peace
and tolerance that so many fanatics make a mockery of.