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A free floating commentary on culture, politics, economics, and religion based on a passionate commitment to the truth and a desire graciously to refute that which is contrary to it….
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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In 1910, when Bethlehem was a town in a sleepy province of the Ottoman Empire, a local man built a magnificent house on the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron. Made from the region's limestone—whose shades, from pale honey to dazzling white, give the Holy Land its distinctive palette—the house was built around courtyards and fountains in the Ottoman style; frescoes and mosaics graced its walls and ceilings. In the 1930s, the man's family went bankrupt. The house was later used as a prison by the British, when they governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate; it then did service as a police academy and a school. But in 2000 the old house was converted into a hotel. Closed during the second intifadeh, the Jacir Palace InterContinental reopened its doors in 2005.
On the evening of May 21, hundreds of business leaders from the region and beyond flowed through the halls of the hotel, past banks of honeysuckle and jasmine, into the garden, where cooks grilled chicken on giant charcoal burners and served baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and baklava. Participants at a conference on investment opportunities in Palestine, they talked up the prospects of the local information-technology industry (whose products, which can be whizzed to markets electronically, are not subject to the whims of Israeli border guards) and bragged about the performance of the Palestine stock exchange. At the center of the crowd—trim, smiling and looking a lot more relaxed than he did a year ago, when he resigned as Britain's Prime Minister after 10 years at the post—was Tony Blair, the special envoy to the Middle East of the U.S.-Russia-European Union-U.N. "Quartet" of powers.
On May 30 in New York, Blair, 55, formally unveils The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which, among other things, is dedicated to proving that collaboration among those of different religious faiths can help address some of the world's most pressing social problems. A quick look around the crowd at the Jacir Palace, and you might think that Blair's work was already done—here were Jews, Christians and Muslims working together to make life better for ordinary Palestinians. A more measured assessment would lead to a different, more depressing conclusion. The Jacir Palace is a few minutes' walk from a checkpoint at the looming security wall that Israel built after the second intifadeh, to physically separate the Jewish state from the West Bank. In Bethlehem, a long-established Arab Christian community is shrinking in the face of growing Islamic militancy. Even the Church of the Nativity (carved up by the Orthodox, Catholic, Assyrian, Coptic and Armenian denominations, a symbol of the divisions within Christianity) has not been immune to the clash of faiths. In 2002 Palestinian militants took refuge there, and together with civilians inside the church, were besieged by Israeli soldiers for 39 days. Blair understands very well that the Palestine-Israel conflict is about land, about culture, about competing narratives of history—but that it is also about faith. "Muslims often say of extremists," he says, "It's really got nothing to do with religion. And I say to them, These people say that they're doing it in the name of God, so we can't say that it doesn't matter. It does matter."
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