Sacred space has become an explosive political issue. The final status of Jerusalem, for example, is now one of the most intractable problems in the Mideast. Unless a solution can be found that satisfies everybody - Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians - we cannot ho-pe to achieve a lasting pe-ace. In India, Ayodhya, one of the seven Hindu sacred cities, has become a symbol of bitter communal tension with the Muslim minority.

In such conflicts, everybody insists the site is “holy” to them, so essential to their identity that they can experience its violation as a rape. But the cult of a holy place, properly understood, always has a strong ethical component. From the beginning the cult of Jeru-salem was inseparable from the ideal of social justice. Psalmists, priests and prop-hets all insisted that it could not be a holy city of shalom (peace, completion and wholeness) unless it was also a city of tzedek (justice); Jerusalem must be a refuge for the poor, the oppressed and the stranger.

Similarly, violence of any sort has always been forbidden in Mecca. To this day, a pilgrim may not even kill an insect or speak an irritable word during the hajj, a discipline designed to teach Muslims, at a level deeper than the purely rational, that hatred and aggression are incompatible with the sacred. It is not enough simply to have a warm glow when visiting a holy site. Instead of becoming a major obstacle to world peace, the cult of sacred space should contribute to harmonious coexistence. Part of the problem is that people feel so at one with their shrines that the integrity of their holy places comes to symbolise their own survival. Jerusalem has always become more precious to a people after they have lost it. Many Jews see Jewish Jerusalem as a near-miraculous symbol of their continued existence, rising phoenix-like out of the ashes of Auschwitz, while the Palestinians, who feel Jeru-salem slipping daily from their grasp, regard the city, surrounded by Israeli settlements, as an emblem of their beleaguered identity.

The cult of sacred space often involves a ritual separation of the site from its profane surroundings, whi-ch can make the cult exclusive. Gentiles were barred from the Jewish temple, while non-Muslims are still forbidden to enter Mecca. But Muslims had a more inclusive vision of Jerusalem’s holiness. Under the Christian Byzantines, Jews had never been allowed to reside permanently in the city, but when Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in 638 he invited them to return. He also ordered that Christian shrines in the city must not be expropriated or attacked. In contrast, when the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in July 1099 they slaughtered 20,000 Jews and Muslims in two days. The emotions that lie behind many traditional religious practices have not been swept away by the cool rationality of the

Enlightenment. If they become infected by the experience of cruelty, oppression and terror or by a lust for power and control, they can, as we know to our cost, result in atrocity. Religion is often misunderstood in our secular society. Like art, it is difficult to do well. It is not about

private ecstasy or self-affirmation. While it can endorse our sense of identity, the chief aim of religion at its best is to introduce us to transcendence by curbing the destructive forms of egotism, hatred and greed. —The Guardian