CNEWA Connections: The Holy See and Jerusalem

After last week’s blog on the Holy See’s stance on the two-state solution, I want this week to look more closely at the Holy See’s position toward a critical part of the region: Jerusalem. Clearly, the two issues are closely entwined and very much in line with U.N. Res. 118 (II), which included setting up Jerusalem, Bethlehem and surrounding villages as a corpus separatum, originally to be administered internationally.

While much of the U.N.’s plan for the corpus separatum was never carried out, one part persists: the notion that Jerusalem was a special issue, one of interreligious and international concern that would be determined ultimately by negotiations between all the parties involved.

There’s good reason for this.

Since Jerusalem is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the U.N., the Holy See and the international community were concerned that all believers have free and total access to the holy places. As we noted last week, for decades the primary concern of the Holy See revolved around places sacred to Christians and under the custody of the Holy See. In recent decades, the priorities have expanded to include concern for Christian-Jewish relations and the human rights of all in the region.

The status of Jerusalem on the international stage was to be addressed through negotiations involving all peoples and faiths who hold the city to be sacred.

However, that changed suddenly and unexpectedly in 2017, when the Trump Administration unilaterally declared it was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. (Up to that point, the international community had its embassies in Tel Aviv, as they awaited the results of U.N. negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem.) As a result, the United States announced it was moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“While the Holy See’s position toward Jerusalem merits thoughtful consideration, it is perhaps even more important to see that the stance of the Holy See is neither unilateral nor taken in isolation.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The U.N. reaction was almost immediate. In an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly on 21 December 2017, the General Assembly stated: “Any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void … (the GA) calls upon all states to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem, pursuant on SC resolution 478 (ES-10/L.22).”

That reaction was expected, but what followed wasn’t. The response from worldwide Christian bodies was nearly unanimous. One is even tempted to speak of an ecumenical consensus among Christians on the special nature of Jerusalem.

The Holy See delivered a press release on 10 December 2017 and made a statement later that month at the Tenth Emergency Session of the General Assembly. Both statements supported the stand of the U.N. on the special nature of Jerusalem.

That was just the beginning. In addition to the Holy See, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople issued a statement opposing any unilateral change in the status of Jerusalem. In the Holy Land, the patriarchs and heads of local churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran) addressed a letter to President Trump on 6 December 2017, pleading for the Trump Administration to “continue to recognize the present international status of Jerusalem,” lest there be “irreparable harm.”

The archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, called for “all parties to uphold the status quo of Jerusalem.”

Moreover, worldwide organizations, such as the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches, called for the maintenance of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, whose final status is to be determined by negotiations between all the parties involved.

Several national and worldwide Muslim organizations also expressed opposition to any unilateral change in the status of the City of Jerusalem.   

This sort of response is remarkable. While the Holy See’s position toward Jerusalem merits thoughtful consideration, it is perhaps even more important to see that the stance of the Holy See is neither unilateral nor taken in isolation. Nor is this stance merely a reiteration of the U.N. position. It signifies something more important — and, I think, hopeful: It is part of a widespread and very impressive ecumenical consensus in a world where such agreements are rare.

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