April 14, 2008 / 10:21 AM / 10 years ago

Religion, politics collide in Jerusalem film

JERUSALEM (Reuters Life!) - Featuring turf wars between priests and ritual sheep slaughter, a new Israeli film shows how religion and politics collide to make Jerusalem’s Old City one of the most intense and colorful places on earth.

Studded with church spires, synagogues and slender minarets, the single square kilometer (247 acres) inside Jerusalem’s ancient ramparts is sacred to three major faiths and cuts to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Holy Fire”, by Israeli director Yoram Sabo, splices images from festivals and interviews with religious figures to pay homage to Jerusalem’s unique character and explore the foibles and fervor of its inhabitants.

“Jerusalem is a crazy place but that’s part of its beauty,” Sabo, a secular Jew, told Reuters. “It is run by religious people who can seem like freaks, but I want to show that they believe in what they are doing and that as a secular person you need to judge them by different criteria.”

Jerusalem is home to the Western Wall remnant of the ancient Jewish temple compound, Islam’s revered al-Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Hundreds of pilgrims tramp daily through a warren of alleys in its four quarters -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian -- alongside bearded rabbis in long black coats or monks swathed in cloaks and tunics.

One of the film’s characters is an Orthodox Jew who aspires to rebuild the ancient Jewish temple on Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Sacred to both religions, it is one of the most contentious spots on earth.

Jews are banned from praying at the site, which has been a frequent flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians, but Yehuda Glick is shown on camera muttering a few words to his God when the Muslim guard’s back is turned.


“Holy Fire”, which premiered at this month’s Tel Aviv documentary festival, features footage from hundreds of CCTV cameras dotted around the Old City.

Palestinian children in the Muslim quarter practice throwing stones. A senior Muslim cleric comments it is the only way for them to vent their frustration at the Israeli occupation.

Sabo highlights some of the similarities between the religions -- both Jews and Muslims are shown preparing to slaughter sheep for religious festivals -- and strives to illustrate the motivation for their fervor.

But ultimately believers on both sides argue it is “God’s will” they alone control the most holy sites.

Conflict is also fierce in the Christian sections of the city, where Greek and Armenian patriarchs tussle over who should take the lead in key religious ceremonies.

A Franciscan monk tells how control over the grounds of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is painstakingly carved among six sects, to the point where even a single step was split between two groups after it prompted a skirmish early last century.

“There are a lot of passions here,” the monk says.

Sabo, who spent three years shooting the film, said he became fascinated with the Old City as a child and first visited after Israeli troops captured the city in the 1967 Middle East war.

“I used to come here as young student and I felt strong and proud,” he said. “Now 40 years later, I wanted to come and see again what makes it so beautiful and strange, but not as an arrogant kid. This time I just wanted to listen to people.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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