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Jerusalem - City of Colliding Cultures

Arab-Jewish tensions run high among the history-laden streets and alleys of Jerusalem's Old City.

JERUSALEM - To some onlookers it was a minor incident. A mere disagreement that was handled tactfully. But to me, witnessing an argument between a Jew and a Christian settled by a Muslim on the very spot where the three great religions converge - the Temple Mount - was symbolic.

Jerusalem, considered by many to be one of the most inspiring places in the world, is a city where cultures collide and emotions run high.

During our visit to the Golden City in November, our group's Palestinian Christian guide was explaining in detail about the significance of the Temple Mount, a large stone-paved platform near the Dome of the Rock that takes up one-sixth of the Old City of Jerusalem.

It's a sacred spot to followers of the three great monotheistic faiths: Jews, Christians and Muslims, who make up half the world's population.

Tradition says it's where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, where King Solomon built the First Temple,Muslims believe this is where Mohammed flew to God on a winged horse.

A suspicious man in his 20s wearing sunglasses and jeans, his head shrouded in a gray-hooded sweatshirt, quietly approached us. Our guide glared at him a couple of times, but the intruder remained glued to our group.

I knew instantly the man was an Israeli plain-clothes policeman or soldier. He didn't look the part of the pick-pockets we had been warned about.

Our guide, a highly-educated man with 35 years of experience, was incensed by the meddler. He suddenly stopped talking to us and walked to the nearby El-Aksa Mosque to summon assistance. In Arabic, he asked the official of the mosque, dressed in traditional Arab garb, to insist that the Israeli officer depart. After a brief confrontation, handled smoothly by the elderly Muslim cleric, the Israeli officer walked nonchalantly away.

I assumed the Israeli was trying to monitor the information our Palestinian guide was giving us. (Guides are licensed by the government). But when I asked Naim about the incident, he made no comment.

Every inch of Jerusalem, first made the capital of the Jews by King David in about 1004 B.C., has been fought over for many centuries.

In the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Jerusalem became divided between Israel and Jordan. The Israelis controlled West Jerusalem and Jordan controlled East Jerusalem.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and has governed the entire city since.

Today, control of Jerusalem is the toughest obstacle to a final peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Negotiations over the future of the city have not yet begun, even though, according to previous negotiations, a solution is to be agreed upon by May 1999.

Palestinians, who make up about 30 percent of the population of the city, want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israeli officials say they will never relinquish sovereignty over any portion of the holy city.

Today there are more than 175,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem compared to 417,000 Jews. Because of a higher birthrate among Palestinians and a growing outmigration of Jews from the city, officials of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government are working to keep the Palestinian population of Jerusalem to no more than 30 percent.

They are planning to expand Jerusalem's boundaries westward to include the city's suburbs. The government also is seeking to build an additional 142,000 apartments to lure Jews back to the Israeli capital city.

Exploring Old Jerusalem, surrounded by a huge wall, portions of which are 2,000 years old, is intriguing.

It is divided into the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Arab Quarter, each with its own distinct culture differences. Small in size, the city is jammed with interesting sites, sounds and smells. And it's filled with colorful inhabitants, among them bearded, black-clothed Hasidic Jews, brown-robed Catholic monks, and keffiah-wearing Arabs. (The keffiah is the traditional Arab head-dress.)

Many of the streets are narrow and busy, filled with shops whose owners hawk everything from religious souvenirs to silver and gold jewelry.

We visited three of the holiest sites of the three great religions there - the Dome of the Rock, a place of prayer and pilgrimage for Muslims; the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest place in the Jewish world, where we witnessed an impressive prayer service; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a great basilica which is the traditional place of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. (See related story.)

Our group of 21 Lutherans from Minnesota and Indiana took part in a Sunday morning service at the historic Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, built on ground which was presented as a gift to Charlemagne, the medieval king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans.

In solitude moments prior to the service, I kept thinking of a small souvenir magnet I saw earlier outside the walled city. It said simply, "Pray for Peace in Jerusalem."

It's a message of hope we all carried home.

Terry Housholder, managing editor of The News-Sun, Kendallville, IN, and his wife, Grace, a reporter/columnist for The News-Sun, were in Israel and Jordan during November 1998.

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