A couple of years ago, I visited Jerusalem for the first time. It is a genuinely extraordinary place, as you might imagine, and I strongly recommend that you put it on your lifetime bucket list of places to spend some time. At its heart is the old walled city, steeped in history which you cannot help but become wound up in. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus spent his final few days – you can walk in the garden where he was betrayed, visit the site of the last supper and his trial, walk the stations of the cross and pray at the very site where Jesus was crucified, now embraced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within this small walled city, too, lies the mighty Temple Mount, a site whose religious significance runs so deep that its preservation is almost akin to preserving world stability itself.
Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, bound his son Isaac for sacrifice on Temple Mount. King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple on Temple Mount, which is supposed to have contained the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC and then rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD. And for Muslims, Mohammed came to Jerusalem and made his ascent to heaven from Temple Mount. These days, it is home two great mosques, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, and the rock itself has been run by the Muslim community since the time of the crusades near the start of the second millennium AD. The Islamic community, therefore, worship on the Mount itself; and the Jewish community worship at the Western Wall on the side of the Mount, which is supposed to be the wall of the Second Temple and is otherwise known as the Wailing Wall.
When we went to Jerusalem two years ago, we went through the security checks and past the guards up onto Temple Mount with a guide. It is the most awesome of feelings to be standing on the most extraordinary religious site in the world, a site contested through the ages between the world’s great Abrahamic religions. As we stood admiring the al-Aqsa mosque and wondering whether we could get closer, a group of security guards ran, with guns raised, towards the entrance to the site. “Watch this”, said our guide, as a group of about 20 orthodox Jews made their way up onto Temple Mount in bare feet, chatting amongst each other cheerfully, and surrounded by a heavily armed guard. “This happens every day at 11am”, our guide told us, “these men are asserting their rights to the Mount, as a holy Jewish site. They are allowed to do it, but I can tell you, if they were ever to start praying, there would be World War Three.” He was completely serious – and as we stood on that ground at the heart of several millennia of dispute, rivalry, distrust and destruction, one could believe his words were true. “Such is the thread”, he said, “upon which world peace stands”.
Today is World Peace Day. It is perhaps hard to understand how lucky we are to live in a country of relative safety. During my own lifetime, war has never come to these shores; and I hope sincerely that it never will in your lifetime. Yet, a quick look online will show you that there have been fatalities in 42 different conflicts around the world already this year, and over 100,000 fatalities occurred in conflicts in Afghanistan, Mexico (drug wars), Syria and Yemen alone. These are places which, these days, are not very far away from us – only a few hours on a plane would take you to most. You can also appreciate that the world is far from safe elsewhere, with smaller conflicts in much of Africa, particularly in the Sahel, and larger potential conflicts as the super-powers square up to each other and find opportunities for points scoring.
So this year’s World Peace Day feels particularly important. Its theme is ‘Shaping Peace Together’, and you can see why from the words of Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, who said this exactly 100 days ago:
“Each year, on 21 September, the United Nations calls on everyone, everywhere, to observe 24 hours of non-violence and ceasefire. Today, it is essential to remember that our common enemy is a virus that causes widespread suffering and risks reversing decades of human progress.
That is why, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, I called on all warring parties to lay down their weapons. These are not normal times, and our responses cannot be routine. The pandemic is not just a health issue. It is having direct and troubling effects on development, peace and security.
Our global ceasefire appeal is resonating in many places and with many different groups. While distrust can make implementation difficult, I have been heartened by the strong support the appeal has received from civil society, which can influence and mobilize people at the grassroots.”
So what can we do about it? Well, three things, I would suggest:
- Do not think that your own actions don’t matter – they do; many small actions will shape the world – the grass roots that Mr Guterres speaks about.
- Remind ourselves of the luck we have and don’t take it for granted.
- Finally, spend some time thinking about World Peace Day; remember the innocent in war-torn nations, and seek to help where we can.