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The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians

On Monday, 14 November 1994, the heads of the Christian communities in Jerusalem met in solemn conclave to discuss the status of the Holy City and the situation of the Christians there, at the conclusion of which, they issued the following declaration:

Jerusalem, Holy City
Jerusalem is a city holy for the people of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its unique nature of sanctity endows it with a special vocation: calling for reconciliation and harmony among people, whether citizens, pilgrims or visitors. And because of its symbolic and emotive value, Jerusalem has been a rallying cry for different revived nationalistic and fundamentalist stirrings in the region and elsewhere. And, unfortunately, the city has become a source of conflict and disharmony. It is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab disputes. While the mystical call of the city attracts believers, its present unenviable situation scandalizes many.

The Peace Process
The current Arab-Israeli peace process is on its way toward resolution of the Middle East conflict. Some new facts have already been established, some concrete signs posted. But in the process Jerusalem has again been sidestepped, because its status, and especially sovereignty over the city, are the most difficult questions to resolve in future negotiations. Nevertheless, one must already begin to reflect on the questions and do whatever is necessary to be able to approach them in the most favorable conditions when the moment arrives.

Present Positions
When the different sides involved now speak of Jerusalem, they often assume exclusivist positions. Their claims are very divergent, indeed conflicting. The Israeli position is that Jerusalem should remain the unified and eternal capital of the State of Israel under the absolute sovereignty of Israel alone. The Palestinians, on the other hand, insist Jerusalem should become the capital of a future State of Palestine; although they do not lay claim to the entire modern city, but envisage only the eastern, Arab part.

Lessons of History
Jerusalem has had a long, eventful history. It has known numerous wars and conquests and has been destroyed time and again, only to be reborn anew and rise from its ashes like the mythical phoenix. Religious motivation has always gone hand in hand with political and cultural aspirations and has often played a preponderant role. This motivation has often led to exclusivism or at least to the supremacy of one people over the others. But every exclusivity or every human supremacy is against the prophetic character of Jerusalem. Its universal vocation and appeal is to be a city of peace and harmony among all who dwell therein.

Jerusalem, like the entire Holy Land, has witnessed throughout its history the successive advent of numerous new peoples: people from the desert, the sea, the north and the east. Most often the newcomers were gradually integrated into the local population. This was a rather constant characteristic. But when the newcomers tried to claim exclusive possession of the city and the land, or refused to integrate themselves, the others rejected them.

Indeed, the experience of history teaches us that in order for Jerusalem to be a city of peace, no longer lusted after from the outside and thus a bone of contention between warring sides, it cannot belong exclusively to one people or to one religion. Jerusalem should be open to all, shared by all. Those who govern the city should make it “the capital of humankind.” This universal vision of Jerusalem would help those who exercise power there to open it to those who are also fondly attached to it and to accept sharing it with them.

The Christian Vision of Jerusalem
Through the prayerful reading of the Bible, Christians recognize in faith that the long history of the people of God, with Jerusalem as its center, is the history of salvation that fulfills God’s design in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

The one God has chosen Jerusalem to be the place where his name alone will dwell in the midst of his people so that they may offer to him acceptable worship. The prophets looked up to Jerusalem, especially after the purification of the exile: Jerusalem will be called the “city of justice, faithful city,” (Is 1:26-27) where the Lord dwells in holiness as in Sinai (Ps 68:18). The Lord will place the city in the middle of the nations (Ez 5:5), where the Second Temple will become a house of prayer for all people (Is 2:2, 56:6-7). Jerusalem, aglow with the presence of God (Is 60:1), ought to be a city whose gates are always open (Is 11) with Peace as magistrate and Justice as government (Is 17).

In the vision of their faith, Christians believe the Jerusalem of the prophets to be the foreseen place of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, Jerusalem rejects the Sent-One, the Savior; and he weeps over it because this city of the prophets, which is also the city of the essential salvific events – the death and resurrection of Jesus – has completely lost sight of the path to peace (Lk 19:42).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jerusalem is the place of the gift of the Spirit, of the birth of the Church (Acts 2), the community of the disciples of Jesus who are to be his witness, not only in Jerusalem, but even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). In Jerusalem, the first Christian community incarnated the ecclesiastical ideal, and thus it remains a continuing reference point.

The Book of Revelation proclaims the anticipation of the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Rv 3:12. 21:2. Cf Gal 4:26. Heb 12:22). This holy city is the image of the new creation and the aspirations of all peoples, where God will wipe away all tears, and “there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away.” (Rv 21:4)

The earthly Jerusalem, in the Christian tradition, prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem as “the vision of peace.” In the liturgy, the Church itself receives the name of Jerusalem and relives all of that city’s anguish, joy and hope. Furthermore, during the first centuries the liturgy of Jerusalem became the foundation of all liturgies everywhere. and later deeply influenced the development of diverse liturgical traditions, because of the many pilgrimages to Jerusalem and of the symbolic meaning of the Holy City.

The pilgrimages slowly led to an understanding of the need to unify the sanctification of space through celebrations at the Holy Places with the sanctification in time through the calendared celebrations of the holy events of salvation (Egeria, Cyril of Jerusalem). Jerusalem soon occupied a unique place in the heart of Christianity everywhere. A theology and spirituality of pilgrimage developed. It was an ascetic time of biblical refreshment at the sources, a time of testing during which Christians recalled that they were “strangers and aliens on earth,” (Heb 11:13) and that their personal and community vocation always and everywhere was to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The Continuing Presence of a Christian Community
For Christianity, Jerusalem is the place of roots, ever-living and nourishing. In Jerusalem is born every Christian. To be in Jerusalem is for every Christian to be at home.

For almost two thousand years, through so many hardships and the succession of so many powers, the local Church with its faithful has always been actively present in Jerusalem. Across the centuries, the local Church has witnessed the life and work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same Holy Places and its faithful have been receiving other brothers and sisters in the faith, as pilgrims, resident or in transit, inviting them to be reimmersed into the refreshing, ever-living ecclesiastical sources. That continuing presence of a living Christian community is inseparable from the historical sites. Through the “living stones,” the holy archaeological sites take on “life.”

The City as Holy and As Other Cities
Thus the significance of Jerusalem for Christians has two inseparable fundamental dimensions:

1. A Holy City with Holy Places most precious to Christians because of their link with the history of salvation fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ.

2. A city with a community of Christians that has been living there continually since its origins.

Thus for the local Christians, as well as for local Jews and Muslims, Jerusalem is not only a holy city, but also their native city where they live, whence their right to continue to live there freely, with all the rights which obtain from that.

Legitimate Demands of Christians for Jerusalem
In so far as Jerusalem is the quintessential Holy City, it above all ought to enjoy full freedom of access to its Holy Places and freedom of worship. Those rights of property ownership, custody and worship that the different churches have acquired throughout history should continue to be retained by the same communities. These rights that are already protected in the Status Quo of the Holy Places according to the historical “firmans” [decrees of the Ottoman emperors] and other documents, should continue to be recognized and respected.

The Christians of the entire world, Western or Eastern, should have the right to come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They ought to be able to find there all that is necessary to carry out their pilgrimage in the spirit of their authentic tradition: freedom to visit and to move around, to pray at holy sites, to embark into spiritual attendance and respectful practice of their faith, to enjoy the possibility of a prolonged stay and the benefits of hospitality and dignified lodgings.

The local Christian communities should enjoy all those rights to enable them to continue their active presence in freedom and to fulfill their responsibilities toward their own local members and to Christian pilgrims throughout the world.

Local Christians, not only in their capacity as Christians, but like all other citizens, religious or not, should enjoy the same fundamental rights for all: social, cultural, political and national. Among these rights are:

• The human right of freedom of worship and of conscience, for both individuals and religious communities.

• Civil and historical rights that allow them to carry out their religious, educational, medical and other duties of charity.

• The right to have their own institutions, such as hospices for pilgrims, institutes for the study of the Bible and the traditions, centers for encounters with believers of other religions, monasteries, churches, cemeteries and so forth, and the right to have their own personnel man and run these institutions.

In claiming these rights for themselves, Christians recognize and respect similar and parallel rights of Jewish and Muslim believers and their communities. Christians declare themselves disposed to search with Jews and Muslims for a mutually respective application of these rights and for a harmonious coexistence, in the perspective of the universal spiritual vocation of Jerusalem.

Special Statute for Jerusalem
All this presupposes a special judicial and political statute for Jerusalem that reflects the universal importance and significance of the city.

1. In order to satisfy the national aspirations of all its inhabitants and in order that Jews, Christians and Muslims can be “at home” in Jerusalem and at peace with one another, representatives from the three monotheistic religions, in addition to local political powers, ought to be associated in the elaboration and application of such a special statute.

2. Because of the universal significance of Jerusalem, the international community ought to be engaged in the stability and permanence of this statute. Jerusalem is too precious to be dependent solely on municipal or national political authorities, whoever they may be. Experience shows that an international guarantee is necessary.

Experience shows that such local authorities, for political reasons or the claims of security, sometimes are required to violate the rights of free access to the Holy Places. Therefore it is necessary to accord Jerusalem a special statute that will free Jerusalem from laws imposed as a result of hostilities or wars, but to be an open city that transcends local, regional or world political troubles. This statute, established in common by local political and religious authorities, should also be guaranteed by the international community.

Jerusalem is a symbol and a promise of the presence of God, of fraternity and peace for humankind, in particular the children of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Muslims.

We call upon all parties concerned to comprehend and accept the nature and deep significance of Jerusalem, City of God. None can appropriate it in exclusivist ways. We invite each party to go beyond all exclusivist visions or actions, and without discrimination, to consider the religious and national aspirations of others in order to give back to Jerusalem its true universal character and to make of the city a holy place of reconciliation for humankind.

The declaration was signed by the following:
• Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem
• Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem
• Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem
• Custos of the Holy Land
• Coptic Archbishop of Jerusalem
• Syriac Archbishop of Jerusalem
• Ethiopian Archbishop of Jerusalem
• Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem and Presiding Bishop of the Anglican Church
• Greek Catholic Patriarchal Vicar
• Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem
• Maronite Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem
• Catholic Syriac Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem

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