JERUSALEM - At first glance it has all the hallmarks of a miracle: virtually the entire orthodox leadership of the Holy City — Jewish, Muslim and Christian alike — are gathering in an unprecedented show of unity for the betterment of Jerusalem.
A long-overdue edict of peace, perhaps? A decree against the spiralling violence between Israelis and Palestinians? A crusade to end poverty, even?
Try none of the above. The target of Jerusalem's multi-denominational jihad is the imminent arrival of gays and lesbians for the upcoming World Pride Parade.
It won't be the first time Pride has taken Jerusalem. But none of the previous four parades registered more than a fraction of the religious rage building against the Aug. 10 march, which marks the culmination of a full week of events billed as World Pride 2006.
Originally slated for last summer but postponed due to security fears relating to the Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Jerusalem program marks the second-ever World Pride gathering, following the 2000 edition in Rome.
The outcry against the gathering comes from all of Jerusalem's religious quarters, whose rabbis, imams and priests have cited ancient text condemning homosexuality as an "abomination" and the parade itself as a "desecration."
Yesterday, the storm gathered anew with the discovery in Jerusalem of a flyer promising a reward of 20,000 shekels ($5,000) to "anyone who brings about the deaths of one of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah."
The anonymous leaflet included diagrams on how to make a Molotov cocktail, which the authors nicknamed a "Schlissel Special" — a reference to Yishai Schlissel, an Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jew who is serving 12 years in prison for stabbing three people at last year's Jerusalem Pride parade.
While Jerusalem police investigate the leaflet, supporters and critics of the event traded accusations, some calling it a hoax, others a symptom of a dangerous intolerance that permeates the city.
Officials with Jerusalem Open House, the gay and lesbian centre organizing World Pride, called the leaflet only the latest example of "an ongoing incitement campaign against the gay community."
"There has been a very cynical coming together of all religions. And instead of coming together on the great and important issues confronting our world they are coming together to hate and demonize," said Haggai El-Ad, executive director of Jerusalem Open House.
"We feel this is an abuse of religion. It doesn't diminish from the honour of gay or lesbian individuals. It does greatly damage the real essence of what faith and belief is all about. And damages greatly the image of Jerusalem."
Behind the scenes, the World Pride project in Jerusalem includes a substantial Toronto connection, with a delegation of nine organizers from Pride Toronto lending moral and logistical support.
"We know there's been a backlash. We sat down and talked about it for a long time before deciding that as the biggest Pride event in the world, Toronto had to be there for our friends in Jerusalem," Natasha Garda, senior co-chair of Pride Toronto told the Star.
"There is a risk. But when you come from a place like Toronto where we have a million people coming together and no violence, it is easy to forget that much of the world doesn't live in that kind of freedom. So we can say, `Lucky us.' But we can also step out of our reality and offer to help Jerusalem any way we can."
Haifa University sociologist Oz Almog, a leading scholar in the study of Israeli culture, said the controversy exposes how fundamentally different Jerusalem is from the rest of the country. "Jerusalem is really a separate country in a way. It includes the darker, most prejudiced, least tolerant side of Israeli society. And when it comes to religious extremes, there is no big difference between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Fundamentalists are fundamentalists," he said.
"But the context is that this is part of a much larger battle in Israeli society, which in the main is becoming more pluralistic all the time. Modernity is coming like a tsunami at the Ultra Orthodox; they already feel under siege because of the Internet and other changes.
"And that is perhaps a problem with what is coming to Jerusalem. Although I count myself as a pluralist, I worry that this may be seen by the religious side as a declaration of war, a provocation ..." Organizer El-Ad acknowledged an element of provocation, but only to the extent that World Pride might "open a non-violent conversation in the context of Jerusalem's diversity.
"Thanks to Pride Toronto, who have led the way as great friends and wonderful allies, we feel empowered not to face these challenges alone," said El-Ad.