Occupied East Jerusalem – As birds sat on the gravestone of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and chirped a cheerful morning tune, Mohammed Shennawy, a Palestinian Muslim from Nazareth, walked through the cemetery gates.
The 71-year-old retired teacher, who had travelled from the northern city, greeted the guards at the cemetery entrance and then asked for the location of the veteran Al Jazeera journalist’s grave.
“I’ve come to read the Fatiha on her pure soul,” said Shennawy in reference to the opening chapter of the Quran, the recital of which is a ritual Muslims practice when grieving the death of a loved one.
“I never knew that Shireen was Christian, and it never mattered. She was a symbol of Palestinian unity in her lifetime and in her death,” he added before making his way to the gravestone, reciting verses from the holy book of Islam.
Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces in Jenin, in the north of the occupied West Bank, as she covered an Israeli raid on the city’s refugee camp on May 11. Al Jazeera said she was “assassinated in cold blood”.
After three days of processions that started in Jenin and passed through the occupied West Bank cities of Nablus and Ramallah, her body reached Jerusalem, where it was laid to rest.
Although a Greek Melkite herself, Abu Akleh was buried at a Greek Orthodox cemetery on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem. Her body was laid to rest next to those of her Greek Orthodox mother and grandfather, and her Greek Melkite father.
For Abu Khaled, a Palestinian Christian who has served Jerusalem’s Christian cemeteries for 40 years, Abu Akleh’s burial was like no other he had witnessed.
“I’ve been in this business for decades. Never had I seen such a force … such sadness and strength in one go,” he told Al Jazeera.
Beyond religious divides
Ahead of the arrival of her casket to the Christian quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, thousands of Palestinians – Christian and Muslim – gathered to receive it.
Posters of Abu Akleh were seen paired with the cross and other Christian symbols, while others were superimposed on building tops overlooking the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site.
Muslims and Christians stood side by side as pallbearers carried Abu Akleh’s casket through the gates of the St Joseph Hospital, where her body was kept, before they moved towards the cemetery. They prayed together, each in their own way, to bid Shireen farewell.
“Shireen was the daughter of Jerusalem, all of it, Muslims and Christians,” said Laila Mohammed, a Muslim resident of Jerusalem, who took part in the funeral prayers that day.
“Shireen always covered news developments from Damascus Gate,” added the 55-year-old, referring to one of the main entrances to the Muslim Quarter in the Old City, and a point of ongoing confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police.
“In her life and in her death, she was a force that united us around the Palestinian cause. It never was, nor will be, important whether she was Muslim or Christian,” she added.
Expanding on the same point, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem said: “Shireen was a Christian, but she fought for the freedom of Christian holy sites the same way she did for those of Muslims.”
“We always saw her report from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the same way we saw her report from the grounds of the Aqsa Mosque compound,” explained the archbishop.
“She was a symbol of our nation, our people, our cause and oneness as Palestinians,” he added. “We, both Muslims and Christians, will remain forever proud of her.”
Uniting Palestinian Christians
As Abu Akleh’s casket made its way out of the hospital, Israeli police attacked the mourners and pallbearers, causing them to nearly drop the coffin on the ground.
But while Israeli forces attacked the procession, the sound of bells from the churches of Jerusalem’s various Christian sects rose in unison.
“All the churches in Jerusalem, from across the various Christian sects, united in their decision to ring their bells together in her memory,” said Garo Sandrouni, a shop owner in the Old City in Jerusalem and a member of the Armenian Orthodox community.
He explained that the Christian community in Jerusalem was deeply divided, making it unheard of for Jerusalem’s churches to come together in any event. Yet they did, for Abu Akleh.
A reflection of intra-Christian division in Jerusalem shows in one of Christianity’s holiest sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the place where Christ is believed to have died, been buried, and was resurrected.
The church is shared by six Christian claimant communities that have defended their rights over various parts of the complex and continue to challenge one another.
“Everyone knows that the Christian sects can’t stand each other. We have a lot of divisions and differences amongst us,” said Sandrouni.
“The fact that they [the churches] all united so quickly to celebrate her legacy and bid her farewell, shows how big of a symbol and meaning Shireen was for all Palestinian Christians,” he added.
Abd Shaheen, a guard at the graveyard where Abu Akleh’s body was laid to rest, and a member of the Greek Orthodox community, agreed.
“As Palestinian Christians, we never celebrated nor grieved together,” said Shaheen as he lit a cigarette and sat on a bench near Shireen’s grave.
“Even Jesus couldn’t unite us the way Shireen did,” said Shaheen. “And so, despite the sadness, there was beauty amid this devastating event.”
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