My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Friday, 21 February 2014

War and Religion

It is so terribly sad that flawed assumptions are allowed so often to tarnish the image of religion. This is one reason why I wrote Why Religions Work. "Why they don't work, more like," I hear quite a few people say, and they dismiss the book with a sneer. Just look at the world and all the wars- that's why they don't work, someone said recently.
One of the most common reasons given for not wanting anything to do with religion is that religions cause most of our wars. But do they?
Excuses abound for war and violence without any need for religion at all! The religions’ historian, Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, shows us that wars are more about greed, envy and ambition, cloaked perhaps in religious rhetoric to give them ‘respectability’. And they can certainly be fueled by religious difference. But we are also attached to too many possessions, and Aidan Rankin in his book Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit claims that it is this attachment, rather than religion per se, that is the cause of so many wars that are too often blamed exclusively on religion.
It is true that many conflicts are fought over geographical boundaries, hypothetical lines drawn on maps, although religious passions do run deep when that land or property is sacred. For many people the religious Crusades come first to mind. Yes they were bloody, and the reasons behind them enormously complex; basically they were great military expeditions undertaken by the Christian nations of Europe for the purpose of rescuing the holy places of Palestine from the hands of the Mohammedans. But here again we are talking about the fight for possession of land and property.
In Gustav Niebuhr’s book Beyond Tolerance, he refers to a night in 1993 when there were 40 wars going on in the world, but on analysis most of them were fueled rather than caused by religion.
However, it is indisputable that we now live in a more perilous world than those of us who are children of the 1950s could possibly have foreseen. There are more wars worldwide than ever before. It is true that in the Western world many of us have experienced unbroken peace since the end of the Second World War. But we can no longer ignore the wider global picture. In those terms the future is bleaker, with so much war and civil unrest and dreadful violence obvious from our daily news, And we all see current atrocities on our TV screens where religious hatred is cited as a cause. But sadly and worryingly it is too often the case that politics is masquerading as religion, the faith differences being used for political purposes, and it is true that religious fundamentalism/extremism is often implicated. But a moment’s reflection tells us that hunger, injustice, inequalities and tyrant dictators also play a significant part in most unrest today. We witnessed in 2011 the most extraordinary events that have been collectively called the Arab Spring. Were not these uprisings more about injustice and inequality and tyrannical rule than about religion? It is quite likely that wars of the future will be similarly caused. Researchers have also found that environmental shifts are already contributing to war and strife and we can expect further displacement of refugees through climate change in the future that will threaten peace in the areas affected. The adverse effects of climate change could easily deliver the knockout punch if there are serious social inequalities which cause tensions waiting to be sparked into action.
The fact is that religions are social capital writ large, of vital significance to the vast majority of the world's population, 

and they work tirelessly to address the causes of so many of these tensions.

So perhaps instead of endlessly debating the role of religion in past and indeed current wars we should concentrate on how the religious – and for that matter atheists and humanists – can peaceably coexist. This needs respect, based on understanding, which can only be achieved through education. Remember the common features of most if not all faiths: the Golden Rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves; the rules that call for universal love and that forbid killing; the common concern for Creation; the notion of hospitality.

I shall look at the the whole issue of religious fundamentalism and extremism in more detail in a later post.
Meanwhile see in this respect the report in the Independent , February 21st, and a related editorial from the Barnabas Fund, of the speech given by Baroness Warsi, the UK Coalition's Minister for Faith, during a recent trip to the Middle East. 

See also this article re. wars and religion or this blog and also Jimmy Akin who has quite a few words to say about this issue.

And please read the book before dismissing religion with an ill informed sneer! 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Coexist House and interfaith tolerance

Not long ago in this blog I wrote about religious tolerance and the importance of education; how respect of different faiths comes from understanding them. For that we need more faith education.

Now I'm fascinated by a venture I read about last weekend in The Times (Michael Binyon: In our global era it is just not viable to "not do God." February 15th p. 85)

parish church Lyme Regis
Basically there is a move afoot to found a centre in London, with international outreach, for the enhancement of the public understanding of religions - from whence interfaith tolerance and respect will come. Of course there are all sorts of hurdles to get over before such a project will become reality, not least of which are the issues of funding, and staffing, and a feasibility study is needed before this will get off the ground. But the idea is supported by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Inner Temple, and the Coexist Foundation, for a start, as well as Professor David Ford, director of the Cambridge Interfaith Programme, (also mentioned in previous blogs), which has been developing this idea over several years. The centre would be called Coexist House, and the intention is for it to hold lectures, conferences and exhibitions, and act as a resource for all information relating to all faiths. What a wonderful project if this can get off the ground. How necessary this is in our multicultural and multi faith societies where respect for each others' beliefs so often seems so dangerously lacking. Michael Binyon tells us that the scheme has "the cautious support of the Bishop of London … and would seek to work with the new Chief Rabbi, senior muslim scholars, leaders of a range of traditions, and politicians."
Bring it on!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Basilica of the Annunciation and Interfaith observations in Nazareth: From our Bus Called Hope

Nazareth was an insignificant village in Jesus' time. It was not on the Via Maris trading route and is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. Unlike other towns, it was not fortified against the Romans in the first century, there being no need. As Nathaniel said to Phillip before meeting Jesus: "Is there anything good comes out of Nazareth?" (John 1: 46).

Like Cana, Nazareth came under Israeli control in 1948, and the communities are now mixed Muslim/Christian, although there is very clearly bad feeling and seemingly a certain lack of tolerance and respect from some of the Muslim population here. We hear a story about a mosque which was to be built alongside and dominating the Christ Church, the plans for which were finally thwarted but only after quite a struggle by the Franciscans, who threatened to withdraw from many of the Christian pilgrim sites which they maintain. We see a protest sign on our walk through the town to the church, and hear stories of megaphones being used that disturb the Christian pilgrims on Fridays. There is clearly much tension between the different faith communities and the Christians are increasingly vulnerable as their numbers decrease with families moving out if they can to safer places. We are told that in 1946 Christians represented 35% of the population. By 1967 this had reduced to 18% and now they only form 1.5% of the population. In Jericho there are now only 10 -15 Christian families. The St George's Catholic School in Jerusalem is dominated now by Muslims although it tries hard to attract Christians. No wonder Palestinian Christians value our support so much. We must not forget their situation. See the Kairos initiative in an earlier post.
We have lunch at the Holy Land Restaurant. I thought the spaghetti the other day was bad. Today the veggie option is even worse and apart from the vegetable soup I just cannot face and do not want the massive plate of roast vegetables served to me. But the coconut cakes afterwards are delicious and I eat as many as the others do not want!! It seems I was unlucky. The restaurant seems to get good reports on line.
Our next stop, the Basilica of the Annunciation, is beautiful. Built on three levels, it has the most stunning modern stained glass windows, various images of the Madonna upstairs and all around the outside courtyard are mosaics of the Virgin Mary contributed by many different countries - with their individual takes on interpretation. The German mosaic for example shows two children with the Madonna in front of the Berlin Wall. This evocative modern Basilica has been built over what is claimed to be part of the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of the largest churches built in the Holy Land for 800 years. We go down into the sacred Grotto, said to be where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
the Cupola in Basilica of the Annunciation
The wonderful Cupola in the roof of the Basilica represents a lily rooted in heaven, the petals of the flower pointing down to the shrine beneath.
The beautiful Italian mosaic above the altar is one of the world's largest, showing Jesus with arms outstretched beside Peter, with the crowned Virgin, the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the Father in heaven.
Visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation is an awesome way to end the day, but our pilgrimage is not quite at an end. On our way back to our hotel in Tiberias for our last night there, we can see the Mount of the Transfiguration, Mt Tabor to our right - A dome shaped mountain venerated since the fourth century as the traditional site of the Transfiguration (Luke 9: 28-36). Our guide tells us that three separate Bedouin tribes live there. Peter asked Jesus if they should they make three dwellings/shelters, one each for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Jesus is immediately hidden in a cloud, and a voice from Heaven says "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." And when the cloud evaporates, Jesus is left on his own: Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen.
Italian mosaic above the altar in the
Basilica of the Annunciation
view of the sacred shrine from above

There used to be three churches on the mount, before they were destroyed by the Persians in AD 614. Now there are two churches, Franciscan and Greek Orthodox, the latter dedicated to Elijah. The Franciscan church has two side chapels dedicated to Elijah and Moses respectively. The Mount rises out of the Plain of Jezreel, which is so fertile that three crops can be grown on the same ground each year. No wonder it is regarded as the "Bread basket of Israel" today.
It is such a shame that we only have time to view this place from afar.
Another day, another visit to the Holy Land, I must find time to explore all that this interesting and meaningful mountain can offer....

Friday, 7 February 2014

Kafr Cana of Galilee - and our pilgrimage on The Bus called Hope

No one is certain where the first miracle of Jesus - turning water into wine at the wedding feast, as told in John Ch. 2 - actually took place. There are four places that are possible candidates - two in Lebanon, two in Israel. But in the 17th century Kafr Cana was officially recognized by the Vatican, and the pope officially confirmed that Kafr Cana is indeed that Cana of Galilee. So the village was added to the list of Christian holy places to visit on the pilgrimage route, and that is where we went.

There are half a dozen or so wineries happy to produce and sell a souvenir bottle or two for the pilgrim or tourist who comes this way. Some pilgrims visit the Greek Orthodox church next door but we give that a miss and make for the Franciscan Catholic Church of the Wedding Feast. This was built in 1879 but earlier remains from Byzantine and Crusader buildings can be seen below in the crypt. There is also a third or fourth century mosaic in Aramaic, in memory of a certain Josef, who some believe may be Joseph of Tiberias who converted to Christianity in the Constantinian period and founded many churches in Galilee.
In the crypt people throw prayer intentions over a screen onto the rocks behind - presumably for help in a troubled marriage, or in thanksgiving for a blessed one! And there is lots of very twenty first century graffiti, which is troubling. The church itself is packed with amateur photographers - or so it seems. Overall I find the town scruffy and unappealing with too much litter. Perhaps it doesn't help that it's raining! This morning is probably the lowest point for me on our pilgrimage and speaks nothing to me at all. I feel like a dissatisfied tourist rather than a pilgrim!
And this is where we lose someone. On arriving back at the coach one lady is not with us. But our guide manages to find her among the labyrinthine streets and we can journey on again, reminded of the parable of the ninety nine sheep left in the wilderness while the shepherd goes looking for the one lost sheep lost. All rejoice when the lost sheep is found and brought back to the fold.

the Greek Orthodox Church in Cana?
"I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." Luke 15: 3-7

All safely rounded up onto the bus, we make our way on to Nazareth, where we join the Sunday Eucharist service at the Christ Church, within the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, part of the Worldwide Anglican Communion. We outnumber the resident congregation by a long way and pack out the church. The service is in Arabic and English in turns. As we sing the first hymn I feel surrounded and daunted by the most dreadful cacophony of sound and I really feel I will have to go outside. I don't think I can take it, as it cuts to the core of my raw vulnerabilities. I'm nearly in tears for quite the wrong reasons. But I persevere, as no one else around seems at all phased, so it is just me! And actually as the service progresses I find the experience strangely moving in a good way. Here we all are, divided by language but united as Christians.

There is a very good illustrated article by Duane Alexander Miller in the St Francis Magazine on the fascinating history of this church.
After the service we are given a wonderful reception with tea, coffee and plenty of home-made cakes - the congregation very much value the support of pilgrim groups such as ours, as moral support in what has become a very difficult situation for Christians in this town. More about this in the next post....

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Jesus' Lakeside Ministry on a Bus called Hope contd.

Spot the Rock Hyrax! and of course the litter.
It has to be said that the finest culinary moments for a veggie on this trip have certainly not been at lunch time! One notable meal in Jericho was I swear simply Heinz spaghetti in tomato sauce. No insult intended to Heinz, but I found the meal unpalatable and inedible. By contrast our lunch at the St Peters restaurant was superb. The freshly cooked falafels were fantastic, served with potatoes and some amazing yoghourt based dips. The non-veggies had Tilapia, locally known as St Peter's Fish - offered as a filleted option if the eyes and head were too much for the squeamish! Sadly I note that this fish is in danger of being over-fished.

Again we had the chance to paddle in the lake, and some of us picked up the most beautiful tiny shells from along the tide line while others were fascinated by the large number of Syrian Rock Hyrax, lolloping all over the rocky promontory. Although these creatures look rather like large rabbits, they are actually more closely related to the elephant or manatee. They live in large colonies of up to 50 or so, and are not deemed to be in any danger of dying out any time soon! Meanwhile I was simply horrified by the litter all along the shore, no attempt made at all to keep the shoreline clean. Sadder still is that people generally don't even seem to notice how we are inexorably cluttering up and poisoning our planet with our own waste. I would love to organize litter picking there. Anyone willing to take me on?

Sculpture at Kibbutz Ginosar
Suitably refreshed, fed and watered, our next stop is to the nearby Kibbutz Ginosar and the Yigal Alon Museum, where among many other fascinating exhibits there are the renovated remains of a first century fishing boat, found when the lake was particularly low in 1986. This ancient, 2000 year old boat would have sailed the Sea of Galilee at the time of Jesus; some commentaries say that it may even have been involved in the marine battle during the Great Rebellion of the Jews against the Romans, described by the historian Josephus Flavius. There is also an art gallery here which I enjoy, and some wonderful sculptures all around the main building with the Sea as backdrop, which I enjoy even more. I simply love sculptures. We have time here also for some hot drinks in a splendid café.

From here we catch boats which are built in the traditional style of those used in Jesus' time. Fortunately this afternoon the Sea is still calm, even tranquil. But it can whip up very quickly into huge battering waves, as we had a little taste of yesterday on arrival, and it can just as quickly become calm again. Half way across the stretch of water the engine of the boat is cut out, and we drift for some time in total silence, while we listen to the story in Matthew 8: 23-27, of the calming of the storm by Jesus and reflect on another story in Matt. 14: 22-32 of Peter's attempts to walk on the water towards Jesus. This place is real, the events it recalls are real, and it is moving to reflect more on these things. Jesus walked and sailed where we have walked and sailed today. He saw the same views, the stunning predawn red glow in the sky across the water, heard the same sounds of birds that we heard with the noisy dawn chorus. Jesus knew intimately what we are now seeing and hearing.
mouthwatering supper display!

Jesus covered such a small area in his ministry, but as stones thrown into a pond create ripples that can have far reaching effects, so his ministry has spread from those first stones cast. We saw in Capernaum the "house church" in the ruins and we reflected there on other ways of "doing church", then as now. In many different ways we continue to create our own Ripples of Hope for this world.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Jesus Lakeside Ministry with a Bus Called Hope contd.

Church of the Beatitudes
It is just a short drive from Capernaum to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is commemorated. What a beautiful setting, and with so little time to fully explore its beautiful twentieth century Italian Church in its panoramic garden setting. You really need far more time to savour everything this place offers than we could give to it. As the guide book says, "a site not to be rushed." The church was designed by the Italian Antonio Barluzzi, responsible for so many special buildings in Jerusalem which we have already seen.

Inside the church the windows illustrate the Beatitudes, and the seven heavenly virtues which Jesus mentions (Chastity, Abstinence, Liberality, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility) are illustrated in the floor mosaic. There are too many tourists here for me, and I am more moved within the peace of the gardens, where there are interesting sculptural works, a water sculpture, wonderful roses and of course the Beatitudes set in stone blocks down the main drive way.
It is all too soon time to move on, towards Tabgha. On arrival we head first to the modern (1984 - replacing an older plain Benedictine church on the same site) Church of the Multiplication, or the Church of Loaves and Fishes, commemorating where Jesus according to tradition fed the 5000 with five loaves and just two small fish (John 6: 1-13). A very small church was first built on this site in around 350 AD. A hundred or so years later a much larger church was built here, only to fall into ruins following the Persian invasion of 614 AD, and the later Arabic occupation of Palestine.
fifth century mosaic

The fifth century mosaics preserved in the floor of the church are said to be some of the loveliest in the Holy Land.
Most famous is the mosaic in front of the altar of two fish and a basket of loaves. There is an ancient rock under the altar. This is said to be part of the one on which Jesus placed the loaves and fishes before the miraculous feeding.
Here we have plenty of time to reflect and pray. I spend quite a while on my knees at the altar, reflecting on how we translate this gospel wisdom into satisfying the present day needs of our own countries - our own towns and villages - how to address the hunger and poverty all around us. Food banks are becoming an essential part of local ministry in our churches back home, even in what are regarded as so-called "privileged" areas. We can at least curb our dreadful and shocking wastage of food, (we throw away billions of dollars or pounds worth every year), invite others less fortunate than ourselves to eat with us, develop our parish Lent lunches - frugal meals as a visible sign of giving up for others. But the frugality must be translated into generosity. Can we change our loaves and fishes into plenty for all? Still in Tabgha we move on to the delightful little Franciscan chapel of The Primacy of Peter down by the edge of the water. This chapel is often known as the Mensa Christi church, (Table of Christ), referring to the rock within the church said by tradition to be the rock where Jesus prepared breakfast for the disciples (John 21: 1-14) after his third appearance to them, at this place by the lakeside, following his Resurrection. Here he also then commissioned Peter to "Feed my sheep."
It is here in this delightful setting where we will celebrate a group Eucharist in the open air below a beautiful bronze statue of Peter with Jesus, shepherd crook symbolically held in his right hand, silhouetted against the sky behind our altar - a most wonderful image. Thunder is rumbling around as we prepare for our open air Eucharist. I'm not a great fan of thunder storms, and I am anxious that this storm does not get any nearer during our service. With the Sea of Galilee audibly lapping at the fine pebbly shore just below us, and with birds twittering in the trees all around us, in the end even the distant rumbles cannot spoil our worship of songs and prayers. There are throngs of other pilgrims and tourists around, and it has to be said they are not always totally respectful to the service clearly going on below them beyond the railings. Some are clearly just fascinated by this visible witness to our faith, some even seem appreciative of the hymns which we sing with gusto. Somewhere out there on Facebook I am sure there is a photo preserved for posterity of me standing in the front row closest to the altar singing heartily! Afterwards we paddled along the shore where surely Jesus would have paddled and watched the swallows swooping in and out of the little Mensa Christi chapel busily feeding their youngsters in the distinctive and beautifully made mud nests high up in the roof. It is time for lunch…

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Religious Tolerance and Education

Religious Tolerance is very much in the news at the moment, particularly following Tony Blair's recently well publicized comments on the subject, including his statement that "The promotion of religious tolerance, both within and between countries will be key to fostering peaceful outcomes around the world in the 21st century."
Of course comments like this inevitably fuel quite a bit of vitriol around Blair's own actions as Prime Minister, along with equally vitriolic comments calling to abolish the so called fairy tales and myths that we call religion. But such comments are really unhelpful. The past is past. Yes we must learn from it but we cannot alter it. And like it or not, the vast majority of the world's population hold a faith which is dear to them, and they are by no means all fundamentalists or ill educated.
Also, the world's great faiths have very much more in common than they have differences. 

It is certainly true that inequalities, and injustices, often revolving around poverty and hunger and health issues fuel political angst which all too readily becomes tainted with religion, and we certainly have to work towards eliminating global injustices, a huge issue in its own right.

Blair is right when he says we must encourage education and religious tolerance if we are to bring about peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world. I believe that education is key to securing a peaceful future for us all. With education comes opportunity for the world's marginalized, and this in its turn helps tackle injustices and inequalities. Reliable data is hard to find, but a massive proportion of the world’s children, by any standards, receive little or no education at all.
If we include within that education a knowledge of the world's different religions then we promote understanding of those different religions and around that understanding can be built not only religious tolerance but more importantly respect for other people's views. We should all have respect for others' views, even if we cannot agree with them.
In this brief interlude from my recent blogs about our pilgrimage to the Holy Land I thought I would mention a few other important interfaith initiatives in addition to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which is doing its own good work to further its aim "to promote greater knowledge and understanding between people of different faiths. This is not a call to faith – it is a call to respect those of all faiths and not to allow faith to divide us but instead to embody the true values of compassion and humanity common to all faiths"

Another initiative is the Cambridge Interfaith Programme - in the word's of its Director, Professor David F Ford: "Few things are likely to be more important for the 21st century than wise faith among the world’s religious communities. That calls for fuller understanding, better education, and a commitment to the flourishing of our whole planet." Out of the Cambridge Interfaith Initiative has grown the idea of Scriptural Reasoning.
Then there is Eboo Patel's IFYC...

And more recently there has been the Common Word Initiative.
I have written about all these and more from time to time in my blogs and elsewhere.

But I also believe that spiritual literacy is essential for the future; that all young people need to be educated in the ways of spirit and respect and love, because this will be the world’s healing force. 

The former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and later Chancellor of Costa Rica’s Peace University, Robert Muller, wrote in the 1980s of the need for a global education that “must transcend material, scientific and intellectual achievements and reach deliberately into the moral and spiritual spheres.” After extending the power of our hands with incredible machines, our eyes with telescopes and microscopes, our ears with cell phones, radio and sonar, our brains with computers and automation, he wrote, we must now also extend our hearts, our feelings, our love, and our soul “to the entire human family, to the planet, to the stars, to the universe, to eternity and to God.”

A Bus called Hope: Jesus' Lakeside Ministry at Capernaum

This is Day 5 of our Pilgrimage. Breakfast has to be seen to be believed. There is the best of spreads imaginable, including rows of artistically arranged pastries of all descriptions and a honeycomb, simply dripping honey into the tray beneath - soon all devoured by 150 hungry pilgrims! These amazing hotel breakfast spreads are usually the highlight of my daily culinary experiences.
We arrived at our hotel last night after a day full of experiences, not least being the renewal of our Baptism vows in the River Jordan, a very special occasion for all of us. Our hotel is on the outskirts of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which was extremely rough when we arrived. Two swans clearly couldn't read the warning signs against swimming in these conditions. The waves were lashing against the concrete pier with some force. Some brave ones among us (or foolish?) planned to swim but we managed to dissuade them. Today we begin the second stage of our pilgrimage, in the footsteps of Jesus as he went about his Lakeside ministry around the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.
approaching the Capernaum ruins

So soon after breakfast we are on our way, continuing northwards in our coach along the Western shore of the Sea. The water is as calm today as it was rough last night, and looking a distinctly more attractive colour. Those keen swimmers who forewent their pleasure last night were up early Some were even up early for a swim, but they said it was very cold! I was happy to snatch a last few moments of sleep!
Our first stop is at the ruins of Capernaum, the centre of Jesus' Galilee ministry, which was a small fishing and farming village in his day. Jesus came here after being driven out of Nazareth. "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea" (Matthew 4: 12-13). He needed somewhere else to live and here he would have found political shelter under the wing of the centurian who could protect him as he carried out his ministry. Here he lived for a considerable time, preaching in the synagogue, healing the sick and performing his miracles. It became his home.
Why did Jesus choose to settle here? Probably, it is said, because his first converts, Peter and Andrew, lived here. It was here where he called not only Peter and Andrew, but also James, John and Matthew to follow him. There are more gospel references to Capernaum than to any other place in the Holy Land. Capernaum means Place of Rest. The ancient city was built near to the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, which was the main trading route of the time from this busy fishing port to Damascus.
St Peter
There is so much to see and take in among the extensive ruins. We stand in the white limestone fourth century ruins of what is said to be the best preserved synagogue of its kind in Israel. These ruins stand on an earlier black basalt synagogue where Jesus preached. Also at the site we see the ruins of shops and houses almost certainly known to Jesus and his disciples and where he would have walked daily. All of this brings me out in the same goose bumps as I felt several years ago walking down the main street of Ephesus where Paul would have walked. The houses here in Capernaum were of a very simple cheap construction, all sizes of stone piled together to make the walls with no mortar, a little like the idea of our dry stone walls but perhaps not as neat. Such walls could not support an upper story, only a simple wood and mud roof, through which it would have been easy to lower a sick man on a stretcher into the room below (Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2: 1-12).
The late twentieth century Roman Catholic Church of St Peter's House here is built over the ruins of the house where Peter almost certainly lived, and which would have been visited by Jesus. Peter came from Bethsaida to Capernaum, perhaps to be near to his mother in law who Jesus later cured (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31). There is a joke the guides love to tell that this is why Peter later denied Jesus three times! Peter's house dates from before the birth of Christ and in the late first century AD there is evidence that the courtyard was used as a house church (Domus Ecclesia) by the early Judeo Christians. Late in the fifth century an octagonal church was built over this area, with the centre exactly over the foundations of this courtyard. The modern church has been designed by the Italian architect Ildo Avetta both to protect the excavated remains of St Peter's house and the fifth century church as well as to offer a place for worship at what is such an important gospel site. Inside the church pilgrims can view the remains of these below a central glass window.
inside the Church of St Peter's House
Some of us find this modern church ugly and out of place. I simply love it. I think it has been very sensitively designed and the striking contrast of the ultra modern building above an important site of such antiquity adds something to the whole experience for me. I think the inside of the church is stunning. There are beautiful wooden reliefs all around the walls surrounding the auditorium style seating, depicting scenes from the life of St Peter and the church is full of motifs recalling the Sea, waves, fish, fishing nets and so on. Some say the appearance of the church itself from outside is reminiscent of the shape of a fishing boat. Altogether I find the church a very spiritual place full of atmosphere and meaning, not always found, it has to be said, in many modern churches back home. Many of us are moved to stay and pray here for quite a while before reluctantly having to leave and travel onward.

Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, sometimes referred to as the Sea of Tiberias, (by St John), Lake Gennesaret (by St Luke), Lake Kinnereth (on road signs - derived from the Hebrew for Harp), even the Syrian Sea (as in "In simple trust like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea, in that wonderful hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind by J. G. Whittier), is the biggest water reservoir in Israel. It is 200 metres below Mediterranean Sea level, and c. 21 km long by 12 km. wide. Its maximum depth is 50 metres. Since 1954 there have been dams at the southern end built to restrain the water flow, presumably the reason why the River Jordan which we saw yesterday is much narrower now than it would have been in Jesus' day. Three tributaries feed this freshwater lake from the Golan Heights, and it has been an important source of life since biblical times. The low lying river plain is best known for growing mangoes and bananas and we see fields of them as we travel on the coach. The bunches of bananas are wrapped in blue plastic - protection against something pests no doubt. It is sobering to reflect that in this peaceful part of the Holy Land we are nearer here to Damascus in Syria, over the Golan Heights that we can see on the other side of the Lake, than we are to Jerusalem that we left just yesterday. Some later say that they heard blasts from that direction, and we certainly saw and heard air force activity during our stay up here in the northernmost part of the Holy Land.