Intolerance of Gay Pride to Unite Conflicting Religious Sects in Jerusalam

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Christian leaders condemned it. Jewish radicals put a bounty on participants. Muslim clerics threatened to flood the streets with protesters.

Next month's international gay pride parade in Jerusalem was intended to bring a sense of cross-cultural unity to a city torn by conflict, organizers said. It already has been wildly successful — just not in the way intended — uniting the city's conflicting religions in anger against their plan.

"We consider this offensive and harmful to the religious integrity of the city," Sheik Taissir Tamimi, the head of the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Tuesday.

The march is the centerpiece of a seven-day WorldPride festival starting Aug. 6 in Jerusalem, intended to bring people of different faiths and cultures to the holy city to set an example of peaceful coexistence, said Hagai Elad, executive director of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which is organizing the event.

It is also intended to make a statement that gays have as much right to the holy city's heritage as anyone else, he said.

The previous WorldPride festival was held in Rome, another holy city, in 2000. This year's festival, expected to attract 20,000 people from around the world, will include a "Youth Day," arts and cultural exhibits and a conference by religious leaders — nearly all of them from abroad — who support the gay community.

Local leaders in this deeply conservative city, however, are demanding the gathering be canceled.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, appealing to the Roman Catholic leader to issue a "strong, emotional, unequivocal statement against this terrible phenomenon."

"The evil are coming upon (Jerusalem) to desecrate it's honor and to humiliate its glory with acts that the Torah despises and that are despised by all the religions," Amar wrote. "In addition, they also want to negatively influence babies, children and teenagers, to ruin them and bring them down the path of destruction."

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party has submitted a no-confidence motion in the government over the parade. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew, has called for the parade's cancellation, but his office said Tuesday he has no authority to take such action.

The police, who are responsible for authorizing parades, said they had not yet decided whether to grant it a permit.

The international festival had originally been scheduled for last summer, but organizers delayed it out of sensitivity for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year. Thousands took part in a local parade instead, weathering insults from protesters and a stabbing attack by an ultra-Orthodox Jew that wounded three people.

There were threats of violence this year as well. An anonymous flyer distributed in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods Tuesday offered 20,000 shekels, about $4,400, to anyone who killed a marcher.

Tamimi called on Palestinians to take to the streets to prevent the marchers from entering east Jerusalem, where the holy sites are located. "This group of homosexuals, we consider them impure," he said. "(They) must not be allowed to enter Jerusalem."

Archbishop Aristarchous, an official with the Greek Orthodox church, took a far softer line, calling on "the sanctity of Jerusalem to be respected by them, and by everybody."

Three Christian Zionist groups based in Jerusalem issued a joint statement condemning the march, saying its choice of venue was intended to spur conflict.

"It's provocative, confrontational and it's a PR move. It's a gimmick," said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, an Evangelical group that signed the statement. "It exploits what Jerusalem means to us. I don't think it means anything to the gay and lesbian community."

Wadiya Abu Nasr, a former Catholic Church official here and a commentator on Christianity, said he personally believes the gay community has the right to march, but perhaps the secular city of Tel Aviv, which is much friendlier to the gay community, would be a better place to do it.

"One has to be not only just, but to be wise and not to be provocative. There are other places they could express themselves without directly offending anybody," he said.

But Elad rejected the suggestion.

"Tel Aviv is a wonderful city, but Tel Aviv does not carry the international symbolism that Jerusalem does. There is only one Jerusalem," he said, railing against the harsh criticism of the parade.

"People on the one hand talk about the holiness of Jerusalem and at the same time are speaking in unacceptable ways against the dignity of other human beings. How that contributes to the holiness of Jerusalem is something that I don't understand," he said.

The proposed route would take the marchers from Independence Park in west Jerusalem toward the Israeli parliament, keeping them miles away from the Old City, which holds the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of the city's holiest sites.

Uzi Even, an openly gay former lawmaker from the dovish Meretz Party, said the organizers needed to be careful to stay away from those sites, but the parade should proceed because it carries important symbolic value.

"That is why the religious people are so much against it," he said. It shows "that we are here, that we cannot be silenced, that we don't want to hide in the closet anymore, that we demand our rights, even from the religious parties," he said.