I went to church on Sunday. A normal and simple thing for a Christian to do, you might say. And indeed, I do it every week, and indeed, this week it was as simple as always. I got up early, hopped on a green Egged bus to the Old City, and hurried through the Jaffa Gate and along Christian Quarter Road, enjoying the silent peace of the streets when all the stores were shuttered and locked before the beginning of the day.
When I reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I slipped across the courtyard and inside the Greek Orthodox Catholicon just in time for the beginning of Orthros. As the priests processed through the Aedicule of Christ’s crypt and into the main Greek Orthodox sanctuary, the familiar holy scent of incense filled my nostrils, the solemn chanting of the priests soothed my ears as doves flitted about in the dome up above, and the presence of others congregating around the church calmed me as they silently gathered to light their candles and worship.
Perhaps it was a bit odd, going to church on a day that in Israel is the start of the work week. Perhaps it was a bit odd, heading to worship when those on the bus around me were bustling to their jobs or heading out to do their weekly shopping. Perhaps it was a bit odd, but it was easy, natural, simple — something that is hardly natural, easy, or simple in the rest of the Middle East.
It’s certainly not easy, natural, or simple for my brothers and sisters in Iraq, where Christians have been kicked out of their homes by ISIS, slaughtered, and forced into refugee camps in Kurdistan. It is not as easy for the minority of Coptic Christians continually threatened and faced with violence and hatred in Egypt. It is not as easy for the Christians in Syria, suffering from the persecution of ISIS and the Syrian civil war. It is not easy for Christians nearly anywhere else in the Middle East — except here, in Israel, where the Basic Laws of Israel protect the free practice of religion in this country. It is a protection denied to my brethren in surrounding countries.
So this is a simple thank you to Israel — for the simple joy of allowing me to attend church freely on Sunday, and for making it so easy to do so.
It may seem like a silly thing to be thankful for, or an obvious truth hardly even worthy of note, but it is not — it is a tremendous blessing. Moreover, as those nations surrounding Israel that first directed their persecution at driving out the Jews now turn their attention to Christians, it is a blessing that ought never be taken for granted.
I have no one but Israel and Israel’s religious freedom to thank, that as an American Christian visiting Israel I can go to worship freely at the site where many believe Christ was crucified and resurrected. Thank you Israel for your toleration, for your protection, and for providing a sanctuary and haven of freedom as you face the threat of annihilation on all sides.
Thank you for making it so simple for me to go to church on Sunday.