CNEWA Connections: Destroying the Sacred

When churches and sacred sites are attacked

On Saturday 10 August this year, Jews all over the world observe Tish’a b’Av, literally “the ninth of (the month) Av.” On this day, Jews remember the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

Although it is a Jewish observance, it gives all of us something to think about. The destruction of the sacred places of enemies and conquered peoples is almost as old as humanity itself. Tragically, it is a practice that has not waned in the contemporary world — including parts of the world CNEWA serves.

The briefest of researches uncovers some sobering data. Attacks on sacred places are far more common than most believers realize. Some of these desecrations receive media coverage. The vast majority do not.

In recent times there have been several attacks that have shocked the world. On 18 July 1994, a synagogue in Buenos Aires was firebombed and 85 people were killed. On 2 March 2001, with the entire world watching, the Taliban destroyed the 1500-year-old old giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. — dynamiting and shelling the statues into oblivion. Most recently, on 24 July 2014, ISIS destroyed the Shrine of Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq. Built on a still-existing 6th century BC palace, this had been originally a Christian shrine. When Christians were no long able to maintain it, it was taken over by Muslims, but was revered and visited by both Muslims and Christians. It was architecturally a strikingly beautiful building.

Across the centuries, the targets have included many different religions. Throughout the Middle East, there are the almost unrelenting attacks on Christian places of worship, with almost no country in the region being immune. And even before the rise of ISIS, Yazidis, Mandeans and even other Muslims (e.g., at the Shrine of Yunus) have seen their sacred places destroyed.

Significantly, the ancient world isn’t the only place where these horrors are unfolding. You need look no further than parts of the United States.

Although not nearly as old as the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the Shrine of Yunus, African American churches in the U.S.—sacred places—have been under almost constant attack, to the point that there is often little or no coverage of the atrocities. An article in The Huffington Post on 21 October 2015 recounts 100 attacks since 1950 against churches whose congregants were primarily black. A Google search uncovered a Wikipedia article that lists the churches and dates of the attacks. Since 2001, a dozen black churches have been attacked, three in 2019 alone.

The attacks on the temples in Jerusalem and almost all of the other sacred spaces mentioned here involved assaults on physical structures: temples, shrines, statues, etc. But it is important to remember that other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, have sacred spaces without buildings or permanent structures — some of them with histories going back thousands of years. It is the place that is sacred; frequently, there are no buildings on it.

Often in the news we hear about Native Americans or indigenous peoples elsewhere protesting what they see as the desecration of land by outside developers. This, too, is an attack on the sacred that deserves attention and action. International bodies like the United Nations are becoming aware of the problem of the destruction of sacred places and are trying to develop protocols and conventions to protect them.

Attention must be paid. These kinds of attacks affect us all. This Saturday, as Jews around the world observe and mourn the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, we should pause and remember the loss of the sacred that is still going on around the world—not just in far-off and ancient places, but in our own country and neighborhoods.

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