By Ramzy Baroud
As the 300-foot spire of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris tragically came tumbling down on live television last week, my thoughts ventured to the Nuseirat refugee camp, my childhood home in the Gaza Strip.
Five years ago, also on television, I watched as a small bulldozer clawed through the rubble of my neighborhood mosque. I grew up around that mosque. I spent many hours there with my grandfather, Mohammed, a refugee from historic Palestine. Before grandpa became a refugee, he was a young imam in a small mosque in the now long-since-destroyed village of Beit Daras.
Mohammed and many of his generation took solace in building their own mosque in the refugee camp as soon as they arrived in the Gaza Strip in late 1948. The new mosque was first made of hardened mud, but was eventually remade with bricks, and later concrete. He spent much of his time there and, when he died, his old, frail body was taken to the same mosque for a final prayer, before being buried in the adjacent Martyrs Graveyard. When I was a child, he used to hold my hand as we walked to the mosque at prayer times. When he aged and could barely walk, it was I who held his hand.
But Al-Masjid Al-Kabir (the Great Mosque), later renamed Al-Qassam Mosque, was pulverized by Israeli missiles during the summer war on Gaza in 2014.
Hundreds of Palestinian houses of worship were targeted by the Israeli military in previous wars, most notably in 2008-9 and 2012. But the 2014 war was the most brutaland most destructive yet. Thousands were killed and more injured. Nothing was immune to the Israeli bombs. According to Palestine Liberation Organization records, 63 mosques were destroyed and 150 damaged in that war alone, often with people seeking shelterinside. In the case of my mosque, two bodies were recovered after a long, agonizing search. They had no chance of being rescued. If they survived the deadly explosives, they were crushed by the massive slabs of concrete.
In truth, concrete, cement, bricks and physical structures don’t carry much meaning on their own. We give them meaning. Our collective experiences — our pain, joy, hopes and faith — make a house of worship what it is.
Many generations of French Catholics have assigned the Notre-Dame Cathedral with its layered meanings and symbolism since the 12th century. While last week’s fire consumed the oak roof and the spire, French citizens and many around the world watched in awe. It was as if the memories, prayers and hopes of a nation that is rooted in time were suddenly revealed, rising all at once along with the pillars of smoke and fire.
But the very media that covered the news of the Notre-Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.
It is as if our religions are not worthy of respect, despite the fact that Christianity was born in Palestine. It was there that Jesus roamed the hills and valleys of our historic homeland teaching people about peace, love and justice. Palestine is also central to Islam. Al-Haram Al Sharif, the home of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is the third-holiest site for Muslims everywhere. Yet Christian and Muslim holy sites are often besieged, raidedand shut downdue to military diktats. Moreover, the messianic Jewish extremists, who are protected by the Israeli army, want to demolishAl-Aqsa and the Israeli government has been diggingunderneath its foundations for many years.
Although none of this is done in secret, international outrage remains muted. In fact, many find Israel’s actions justified. Some have bought into the ridiculous explanation offered by the Israeli military that bombing mosques is a necessary security measure. Others are motivated by dark religious propheciesof their own.
Palestine, though, is only a microcosm of the whole region. Many of us are familiar with the horrific destruction carried out by fringe militant groups against world cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most memorable among these are the destruction of Palmyrain Syria, the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, and the Great Mosque of Al-Nuriin Mosul.
Nothing, however, can possibly be compared to what the invading US army did to Iraq. Not only did the invaders desecrate a sovereign country and brutalize her people, they also devastated her culture, which goes back to the start of human civilization. The immediate aftermath of the invasion alone resulted in the looting of more than 15,000 Iraqi antiquities, including the Lady of Warka, also known as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia — a Sumerian artifact whose history goes back to 3100 BC.
I had the privilege of seeing many of these artifacts on a visit to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad only a few years before it was looted. At the time, Iraqi curators had all precious pieces hidden in a fortified basement in anticipation of a US bombing campaign. But nothing could prepare the museum for the savagery unleashed by the ground invasion. Since then, Iraqi culture has largely been reduced to items on the black market of the very Western invaders that tore the country apart. The valiant work of Iraqi cultural warriors and their colleagues around the world has managed to restore some of that stolen dignity, but it will take many years for the cradle of human civilization to redeem its vanquished honor.
Every mosque, every church, every graveyard, every piece of art and every artifact is significant because it is laden with meaning — the meaning bestowed on them by those who have built or sought in them an escape, a moment of solace, hope, faith and peace.
On Aug. 2, 2014, the Israeli army bombed the historic Al-Omari Mosquein northern Gaza. This ancient mosque dated back to the 7th century and served as a symbol of resilience and faith for the people of Gaza.
As Notre-Dame burned, I thought of Al-Omari too. While the fire at the French cathedral was likely accidental, destroyed Palestinian houses of worship were intentionally targeted. The Israeli culprits are yet to be held accountable.
I also thought of my grandfather, Mohammed, the kindly imam with the small white beard. His mosque served as his only escape from a difficult existence; an exile that only ended with his own death.