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Religion, Politics and Jerusalem

Believers of three great faith traditions look upon Jerusalem as a Holy City.

There are key words that describe the psyche of a people. For example, “freedom” is a key to understanding the American mentality. In Israel, I believe it is “security.” For Arabs, especially Palestinians, it is “respect.”

Embedded in the pavement of the Greek Orthodox parish church in the town of Madaba in the highlands east of the Jordan River are two words that illuminate the anguishing problem of Israel and Palestine today. They are ancient Greek words, for they have been in place for over 1,400 years. They label a representation of Jerusalem, part of a mosaic map of the region: HAGIA POLIS (Hagia Polis), the Holy City.

From the beginning of Christian times, this was the proper name of Jerusalem, the only city in the Western world that was called the Holy City. Today Arabs still call it El-Quds, which in Arabic means “the Holy.”

Polis, the Greek word for city, is the root of our modern English word “politics.” Politics refers to guiding and managing the life of the city and, by extension, of the city-state or nation-state.

This unique title, Holy City, spells out the paradox and the problem of Jerusalem – the inseparability of the spiritual and political. With all due respect, sometimes political leaders are naive in thinking they can deal with the challenge of Jerusalem merely in political terms, as though its spiritual aspect were nothing but some historic connection with barely any modern significance.

How foolish, flawed and failed is such a policy was made clear by the tragic events of the past months.

In part, the present crisis in the Holy Land stems to the second Camp David discussions. Until then, Jerusalem was such a delicate topic that everyone agreed to postpone talking about it. For better or for worse, President Bill Clinton, in seeking a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explicitly and formally put on the table the status of Jerusalem – the hottest topic of all.

When at the end of September the Israeli Likud party leader and former general, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by Israeli security, made a visit to the Temple Mount (the Temple Mount refers to a vast elevated plaza in Jerusalem on which the biblical Temple once stood, but which has been a Muslim sanctuary since the seventh century; its exterior western retaining wall is the great holy place for Jews), he did something in itself simple and ordinary, but whose symbolism was powerful and inflammatory.

His stated purpose was to demonstrate that a Jew may freely go anywhere in Israel, but this particular “anywhere” is a holy place of Islam. General Sharon wished to assert the political sovereignty of the State of Israel over all of Jerusalem, but he was perceived to be asserting sovereignty over the hagia as well as the polis.

The violence that followed soon after cannot be justified, but can be understood. The presence of this Israeli politician in a holy place not only heightened tensions between two nationalisms, Israeli and Palestinian, but also between the Jewish State and the religion of Islam. It convoked that tremendous clash and convergence of the holy and the political that is at the heart of the problem of Jerusalem.

To understand the challenge of peace in Jerusalem, one must understand the spiritual significance of the city, a spiritual significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Although Israelis assert that Jerusalem is their eternal and indivisible capital, for religious Jews the significance of Jerusalem is not so much that it was the political capital founded by King David as it was the spiritual capital of ancient Israel. The great thing that David did was to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He wanted to build a place for the Ark at the summit of the hill on which his palace stood. In the plan of God, it fell to David’s son Solomon to build a place for the Ark.

The Ark was a chest in which were carried the Tablets of the Law, the contract between God and Israel. When the Ark was in its special tent in the desert and, later, housed in the Temple of Jerusalem, it was always a privileged place of communication with God, a place where prayers were offered and sacrifices were made. For ancient Israelites, it was their spiritual center.

The Temple and, by extension, the city of Jerusalem were the very heart of Judaism. The Psalms are filled with references to Jerusalem. The Psalmist sings, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights.”

Jerusalem is not only a spiritual center for Jews but also for Christians. First, Christians self-appropriate all of the Jewish Scriptures. They see themselves as another branch from the same stock. Jerusalem is associated with Jesus, the apostles and the early Church.

Mary and Joseph, as good Jews, presented the infant Jesus to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. Years later, when returning from their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they couldn’t find the boy Jesus in their caravan – instead, they found him talking with the teachers in the Temple courtyards, where religious groups gathered around their rabbis and teachers. Later, when Jesus began his public ministry, he often did the same.

Jerusalem is the place of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. His holy sepulchre has been the focus of Christian pilgrimage from time immemorial.

Jerusalem is not only associated with Jesus but with his Church. It was in the same upper room where Jesus celebrated the last supper with his apostles that the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary, the apostles and many other disciples. Jerusalem was the Mother Church of Christianity. When there was a conflict between Peter and Paul and when Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles was questioned, he came to Jerusalem to talk to the head of the Church of Jerusalem, James, the brother of Jesus.

Jerusalem is for Christians a symbol of the ultimate redemption, a symbol of the union of all with the Lord. The words of the Book of Revelation describe the end of times as the New Jerusalem descending from heaven like a bride dressed up in all her beauty.

For Muslims, too, Jerusalem is a spiritual center. Muslims also look upon the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as part of their tradition. They speak with reverence not only of the prophet Muhammad but also of Jesus. They venerate all as prophets of God, Abraham, David, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad.

For Muslims, that remnant of exposed rock – over which the Temple originally was built and which probably was the threshing floor that David purchased for the resting place of the Ark – is venerated as the place where Abraham was put to the test by offering his son in sacrifice.

An ancient tradition, beautifully elaborated in Muslim literature, tells of a mystical experience of the prophet Muhammad. He traveled by a winged steed to Jerusalem, alighted at the rock and was caught up into an experience of heaven. The other great mosque at the edge of the area of the ancient Temple compound is called Al Aqsa, the farthest mosque, the mosque mentioned in the Qur’an.

For Muslims, after Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world.

If you forget or ignore all of this, you totally misunderstand Jerusalem. Jerusalem is associated with the Divine. It is not so much a small territory in the Judean hills as it is a symbol and a value – not just for the six million people in Israel and the three million people in the Palestinian territories, but for all Jews, all Christians and all Muslims throughout the world. For at least 2,700,000,000 people, nearly half the human race, Jerusalem is a spiritual center.

This is the hagia, the holy. The other dimension of Jerusalem is the polis, the city, the political.

Israelis assert that only for them was Jerusalem ever a political capital. King David took the city from the Jebusites 3,000 years ago and made it his capital. After only a brief period as capital of a united Israel, it remained the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

For centuries, Jerusalem was occupied by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Seljuk Turks. Briefly it was the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Then it passed into the hands of Egyptians, Ottoman Turks, the British and the Jordanians. Since 1967, it has been held by Israel.

When one talks about the peace process and solutions to the political problem of Jerusalem, it’s necessary to know some geography. What we traditionally call Jerusalem, the Old City, is very small. Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab communities of Jerusalem spread north, up the Mount of Olives to the east and a little bit south, toward Bethlehem.

The growth of modern West Jerusalem began at the end of the 19th century. In the course of the 20th, it developed and expanded, so now the Old City – which was once all of Jerusalem – is only a small neighborhood within the broad boundaries of the present city.

When the Israelis occupied Jerusalem in 1967, they expanded its boundaries to include many suburban villages located in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. By annexing them to the State of Israel, these villages, from the Israeli perspective, were removed from any future discussion and peace negotiations.

This is part of the political problem of Jerusalem: its boundaries are shifting all the time. There is a constant appropriation of land, usually Arab land, to increase the size of Jerusalem.

Apparently in frustration after the Camp David meetings, President Clinton announced a shift in policy. Usually every election year the United States Congress makes a rather condescending ploy to gain the American Jewish vote and decides to move the embassy of the United States from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the past, President Clinton demurred and used his executive authority to delay such a move. This time, he announced that before the end of his term, he will move the United States embassy to Jerusalem.

What are the implications of such a move? It seems so innocuous that most congressional representatives vote for it. Their logic seems to be: “Why are we slighting our Israeli friends? Israel is our ally. It’s the right thing to do. After all, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital; the Knesset (Parliament), offices of government, presidential residence, everything is located in Jerusalem.”

But, according to international law – if there is such a thing and let’s hope there is – Jerusalem is not recognized as the capital of Israel. For that reason, every country that has diplomatic relations with Israel, with the exception of two Central American republics, has its embassy in Tel Aviv.

What international law says that? In 1947, the United Nations Organization voted to partition Palestine, which had been governed by Great Britain under a mandate from the old League of Nations. The General Assembly decided to divide Mandate Palestine into three parts: a Jewish state, an Arab state and a separate political entity, a corpus separatum, the city of Jerusalem. A very detailed section of the partition resolution explained that because of its immense historical, cultural and spiritual significance, Jerusalem should be placed directly under the United Nations.

The plan called for the Trusteeship Council to appoint a governor who would establish working relationships with the Jewish and Arab states but also ensure the unique status of Jerusalem as an international city.

Clearly this is not the view of Israel. After Israel, in 1967, conquered the remainder of Mandate Palestine, the State of Israel, understandably, declared Jerusalem to be its eternal and undivided capital. Years later, with the evolution of Palestinian nationalism, the Palestinians made a similar claim. However, the difference between the two claims is that one claimant possesses Jerusalem and the other does not.

The venerable aphorism, “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” seems to fit this case. No matter what we theorize about sovereignty, if we read human history, it is mostly about taking possession. Israel de facto has total sovereignty over Jerusalem. The City of Jerusalem and all its neighborhoods, both Arab and Jewish, are administered by one mayor and a municipal government.

A positive result of Camp David was that the Prime Minister of Israel expressed a willingness to negotiate the status of Jerusalem, but with very strong conditions.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to consolidate its hold on Jerusalem by building satellite suburban developments, “settlements,” around the Old City, which are limited to Israeli Jews. Israeli Arab citizens – one fifth of the Israeli population – may not live there. There is a deliberate policy of making a minority of non-Israeli, non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem. This has succeeded.

The paradox, though, when you speak about sovereignty over Jerusalem is that in spite of all the talk about the total Israeli exercise of sovereignty, there have always been limitations to that sovereignty.

For example, who has sovereignty over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? It is controlled primarily by the Christian religious authorities – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Franciscans. A Turkish decree of over two hundred years ago, referred to as the Status Quo, still regulates the behavior of Christians for religious and nonreligious purposes in the Holy Sepulchre and the other major holy places.

The Status Quo provides that unless public safety is at stake or unless the ecclesiastical guardians violently disagree with one another the civil authority has no say. They can only intervene in extraordinary circumstances.

Although Israel has sovereignty over Jerusalem, when it comes to the Christian holy places there is an understanding that the exercise of sovereignty is limited.

The same applies to the Muslim and Jewish holy places, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Who, in practice, controls the Temple Mount? Theoretically, as part of Jerusalem, it is controlled by Israel. Actually, there is an understanding that the Muslim religious authorities control it – that is, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his Islamic High Council. What do the Israelis do? They help, they guard the entrances. If public order or safety is violated, Israeli soldiers enter.

Who has sovereignty over the Western Wall, the great Jewish holy place of Jerusalem where Jews go to pray, where even the Holy Father went to pray? Who controls it? Again, it is directed by religious authorities, rabbis and the religious schools, although it is under the State of Israel.

De facto, there are limitations to sovereignty in Jerusalem. There always have been. They are ancient. They are historical. They are traditional. Sometimes people lose track of this when they say it is absurd for the United Nations to make a special provision for Jerusalem. Why not? The Ottoman Turks did. The Israelis still enforce their law. It is a practical limitation on Israeli sovereignty even today.

When you combine the religious and the political and social daily life – when you try to live out the inseparable hagia and polis of Jerusalem – you get into terrible tangles.

Right now, for example, Jerusalem is closed off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinian Arab areas. On Fridays, the holy day for Muslims, Palestinian Muslims who want to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque cannot do so, for frequently they are not allowed into Jerusalem.

There was a powerful picture in the news-papers last October of an angry Israeli soldier directing people away while an angry Muslim man stood face to face with him; that day Israel was restricting access to the Muslim holy places to men over 45 years of age. Why? Israel feared that hot-blooded young men would use Friday prayers as an excuse for further violence. So they limited access to the Al Aqsa mosque. Again, this is understandable. It’s a matter of security.

What does this say about the policy of the State of Israel that guarantees free access to all the holy places? Their logic seems to be: “Be reasonable. This is an extraordinary situation. In the name of security and public order, we temporarily have to restrict access to the holy places.”

But restrictions upon entering Jerusalem have been in place for seven years, not just these recent weeks. Restricting access to Jerusalem is more than restricting access to a spiritual center for Christians and Muslims. If you know the country at all, you know that Jerusalem is a hub for the West Bank. The roads all go through Jerusalem. If you cannot go to Jerusalem, it is very complicated to travel. The main hospitals are in Jerusalem. If you cannot get into Jerusalem, you cannot get the medical care you may desperately need.

What is to be done about Jerusalem? What is to be done to balance the demands of the hagia and the polis, the spiritual and the political? The Holy See’s position is that the status of Jerusalem involves more than just considerations of territory and politics. The spiritual patrimony, the religious identity of Jerusalem must be safeguarded. The city must have a special status. Direct international governance of Jerusalem may not be practical, but there must be at least an internationally guaranteed statute ensuring the unique special character of the Holy City, for much the same reasons that prompted the 1947 plan of the United Nations.

Jerusalem is too important and too valuable to belong exclusively to anybody. The spiritual boundaries of Jerusalem embrace the hearts of billions of people. The political future of Jerusalem is a matter to be resolved between two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians. The ultimate destiny of the Holy City involves three great faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem must be not only an indivisible city, but also a shared city.

The Hebrew name for the Hagia Polis, the Holy City, is Yerushalayim, the Dwelling of Peace. May it be so!

Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern

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