LAST week, I returned from an eight-day holy pilgrimage to Israel. The trip was organised by New Wine International, my church in London, and attended by 71 people. Initially scheduled for November 2019, the tour was delayed by two-and-a-half years due to COVID-19 and the consequent global restrictions, including in the UK and Israel. It was, therefore,with great excitement and great expectation that we finally embarked on the trip on Wednesday June 22.
Great excitement and great expectation? Yes, and rightly so. After all, we were going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We were going to see and touch those places we read about in the Bible – where Jesus was born, where He carried out His ministry and performed several miracles, where He was crucified, where He was buried and where He resurrected. We did, and, believe me, it was spiritually enriching!
That apart, I came away with insights about Israel’s extraordinary religious and ethnic diversity and tensions and how they are delicately managed. Those insights and the lessons for Nigeria, a country that’s utterly mismanaging its diversity and proneness to ethno-religious tensions, is the focus of this piece. But, first, I must start with the spiritual.
Without a doubt, every practising Christian must wish to go to Israel and connect physically and spiritually with the events and places described in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible comes alive when you experience the land where Jesus walked. We were told to see the trip as a spiritual tour of the Holy Land. And so it was, with several prayer sessions and countless visits to holy sites, enhanced by great elucidations by our brilliant tour guides.
For logistical reasons, we started from Capernaum, Northern Israel, where Jesus carried out much of His ministry, and visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where He gave His famous Sermon on the Mount – the Beatitudes or, as one of the guides said, “the beautiful attitudes”! Then, we sailed joyfully across the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus sailed.
From Capernaum, we went to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. At Nazareth Village, we ate “Biblical meal”, including tasteless lentil soup, reigniting the first-century experience in Jesus’ days. Leaving the north of Israel, we headed for Jerusalem to visit and pray at the Western Wall, to some, “Wailing Wall”!
Next day, we went to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace, and visited the Grotto of Nativity, in Manger Square, where He was born. Then, the Shepherd’s Field, where we were treated to a demonstration of how shepherds “kept watch over their flock” in the days of Jesus, Himself “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
The most poignant moments were when we visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus underwent agony and was arrested before His crucifixion, and when we walked, carrying a wooden cross, through Via Dolorosa, where the 14 episodes of the passion of Jesus took place before He was crucified and buried in Golgotha. We visited Jesus’ empty tomb in the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Empty, because He resurrected, He rose from the dead!
Ah, what’s a holy trip to Israel without visits to River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised, and Jericho, the oldest city in the world? Each of us was baptised in River Jordan, and most floated – yes, you can’t swim – in the Dead Sea. Then, we headed for the Mount of Temptation in Jericho and the Garden Tomb, ending the trip with a visit to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. What a spiritual experience! Utterly unforgettable!
Now, what I described above might suggest that Israel is only of significance to Christians and Jews. Far from it. Jerusalem is of huge significance to the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and it’s arguably the most religiously volatile area in the world. In 1948, during the Arab-Israel war, Jordan captured, annexed and Islamised East Jerusalem, including the Old City. But during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel recaptured and annexed East Jerusalem, taking control of the Old City.
The Old City is significant because it’s home to several holy sites of the three religions, namely: the Temple Mount and Western Wall for Judaism; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christianity; and the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque for Islam. Tensions abound. Muslims do not recognise the sacredness of the Western Wall, while Jews claim the Dome of the Rock wrongly sits on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, on which they hope, one day, to rebuild the original Solomon’s Temple.
Yet, despite these claims and counterclaims, Muslims and Jews in Israel are not killing each other over the holy sites. Why? One, everyone believes political solution, not violence, is the way forward. Two, there’s a grudging tolerance of one another’s religious practices.
For instance, Old Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarter. But each of these quarters has holy sites belonging to other religions, such as the Pool of Bethesda and Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter, yet they’re not desecrated or destroyed. Why? I asked our guide. “Everyone tolerates each other here,” he said.
That’s in sharp contrast to Nigeria, where Islamists are destroying churches and massacring Christians as they did when they murdered over 40 worshippers in a Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State.
If there’s any country where religious violence should be a daily occurrence, it’s Israel. Yet, it’s not,Why? Because Israel protects the holy places and treats every religion, not just Judaism, even-handedly. Unlike Nigeria. Think about it: a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket is a frontal attack on Nigerian Christians, a perverse suggestion that Christianity, an older religion, is inferior to Islam!
The Holy Land tour involved praying fervently. Apart from personal prayers, I prayed for the Vanguard family and for Nigeria. Truth is, Nigeria faces a calamitous future if Bola Tinubu becomes president on a Muslim-Muslim ticket. Hence, my prayer was simple: God save Nigeria!