Tomorrow, in Jerusalem


Lifting of restrictions should allow all pilgrims to answer the call of the holy land

 FOR the religious, Christmas goes beyond the day for feasting and gift-giving. This is the day that symbolically commemorates the birth of Jesus, saviour of the Christians (and a prophet revered by Muslims). It is a day not only for reflecting on a miracle birth, but also to be thankful for the gift of further enlightenment to the world. For Christians, as they reflect on this day, more than two millennia ago, their minds will assuredly turn to the place of Jesus's birth, Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Palestine. A 10km drive north, in the Israeli-occupied territory, is Jerusalem where, according to Christian belief, Jesus was crucified.

For the religious, a pilgrimage to one would not be complete without the other, and given their close proximity, logically it should be no great hardship to visit the two. But, logic might not take into account political hurdles, deviations and blockades, such as that presented by the 64-year-old Israeli-Palestine conflict. Furthermore, the lack of diplomatic relations between Israel and pro-Palestine Malaysia has meant that Malaysia cannot guarantee the safety of citizens who cross over to the disputed territories. Diplomatic issues have to be mediated by Israeli-friendly nations on behalf of Malaysia; but this is a get-out-of-jail card that has to be used sparingly, hence, the number of state-sanctioned visits was limited to a miserly quota that saw the chances of devout Christians ever visiting the holy land being very slim. Malaysian pilgrims intent on getting to the other side broke diplomatic sanctions by surreptitiously crossing the border at Jordan, going through Israeli Immigration and eschewing having their passports stamped, and basically going in at their own risk.

So, the Malaysian government's decision last week to remove its restriction on the quota of Christians going to Jerusalem, "decriminalises" what is essentially a sacred rite. Jerusalem is the holiest site for the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths. It is where the concept of a Jewish nationhood was born more than three millennia ago. To the Muslims, it is known as Al-Quds (The Holy Sanctuary), and the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in the Muslim world, from which Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven in the miracle of Mikraj, and, for 13 years, it was the first point of reference for prayer (qiblah). Jerusalem is, therefore, an irresistible destination for pilgrimage. It is a city to which all have a claim, and none have sole claim. Accordingly, restrictions should be raised for all sincere pilgrims. Political differences shouldn't get in the way of a sincere practise of faith.

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