Jerusalem keeps making headlines: Is it a city of peace?

by Rev. Paul Lansu

It is not apparent to everybody visiting the city of Jerusalem in the Holy Land. But next to the geographically, religious and historic reality of the city there is the spiritual dimension of Jerusalem as the Eternal and Holy City of Faith.

In the Gospel readings, Jesus wishes his followers a good trip to Jerusalem.[i] Jesus himself is also on his way, with Jerusalem as the final destination. For us, people from here and now, Jerusalem can be a travel destination. We do not even have to take the plane for that. It is a destination in the spiritual sense: Jerusalem is the city of ultimate and total peace, the city of security finding in God.

The city of stone Jerusalem as it is today is still far from that peace. It is now more a city of dissatisfaction and division. However, that reality also speaks for itself: peace is and remains a difficult task, both in the city of people and in one’s own heart. Jesus very much wishes us to find that peace. It must be our first word and our first task when we come to people: wishing for peace.

That peace must already be evident from the way we go. As a “lamb among the wolves,” Jesus calls this. You go on the road to people happens in all defencelessness. You do not have a thick wallet in your pocket to unpack with it, you do not wear trendy fashion clothing, and you have nothing with which you can force or enforce. You only have yourself, the only message being the vulnerable message of God’s love for people.

Jerusalem, this is where you can experience the confidence of God. That place cannot always be found. That destination is not included in a travel guide. It lies in yourself; it is in places where you meet people who radiate peace and where you can give peace yourself. However, a spiritual approach to the city of peace is not unconnected to reality of today.

Come and see

It might be extremely revealing if you as a believer could visit the city of Jerusalem “in persona”. Smell and feel the city. You need sufficient time to empathize with the extreme and many aspects of the city, both religious and cultural.

The Old City as a whole is particularly rich and hides a huge wealth of history and religious tradition. However, Jerusalem is also marked by a violent past. To date, there is deep division. The future is uncertain.

Three monotheistic religions together form a tripartite in terms of holy places and presence: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Two peoples are claiming Jerusalem as their capital city: Israel and Palestine.

Intertwining of holy places

Israel regards Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital. According to Jewish belief, there is the rock where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, as well as the holy of holies of the temple of Salome (First Temple)[ii]. The Western or Wailing Wall[iii] symbolizes the Jewish presence.

Jerusalem has the same religious significance for the Palestinians as it does for the entire Islamic world. The city is considered the third most sacred place in Islam, because the prophet Mohammed would have ascended from that same rock to heaven. At that place is now the “farthest mosque”, the Al-Aqsa.[iv]

From a military, strategic and geographical point of view, Jerusalem is not very important – there is no industry, no river, and no airport – but the cultural and religious importance of the city is immense. Ideology here transcends the location. Concerning authority over and access to Jerusalem, it will be difficult to compromise.

In 2017, President Trump stated that the USA recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.[v] Congress had been in favour of this since 1995 and had made funds available to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama had repeatedly signed for a six-month postponement of the placement. The official move took place in May 2018.

For the Palestinians, this is a provocation and blocks a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital for both nations. Despite the further Judaization of the city of Jerusalem, East Jerusalem should also become the capital of the Palestinians as recognised in international law.

In response to the USA move to Jerusalem, 128 countries voted in emergency session of UNGA on 21 December 2017,[vi] to null any decision or action that could alter character, status or demographic composition of Jerusalem. Call on states to refrain from establishing their diplomatic missions from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The role of the UN in the peace process should not be compromised.

Keeping the Status Quo of Jerusalem

Free access to the holy sites for all three religions is essential. The history of insisting on the free access goes back to the Caliph Omar Bin Al Khattab who visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 637 AD with Patriarch Sophronios and declined to pray at the Church when the noon call to prayer was heard. This symbolic and practical measure by the Caliph ensured for generations to come the right of Christians to their own holy places unhindered.

In 1852 Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid issued the Status Quo decree[vii] that sought to regulate freedom of access, possession and worship in the Holy Sepulcher and six other Christian sites. Later in history, the holy places remained under the existing religious custodianship arrangements.

The UNGA Resolutions 181 of 1947 and 194 of 1948 recommended respectively for Jerusalem to be placed under international trusteeship and the internationalisation and demilitarisation of the city in order to presence free access and protection of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Also after the June 1967 war and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, the freedom of access to the different religious sites have been ensured. The international community repeatedly stated not to accept any unilateral initiative designed to change the status quo of Jerusalem. Today, it is stated that Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations.

Judaism and Islam have both the same sacred sites

Some religious Jews argue that they should have the right to pray at Al Haram Al Sharif, the Temple Mount.[viii] They are right in principle. In an open society and climate of political and religious tolerance, Jews should visit holy sites of Muslims and vice versa. Muslims should be allowed to visit the Western Wall or the Rachel’s Tomb,[ix] both sacred to Jews and Muslims. In addition, the Abrahamic Mosque in Hebron is divided as well.

The policy should be no exclusivity over the holy sites. They should be open and reachable for all believers. All monotheistic believers of the three religions should guarantee the multi-cultural and multi-religious mosaic character of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem and Bethlehem are one identity

Since 2002, the Israeli government has built a separation wall and introduced a permit system.[x] These measures have virtually divided Bethlehem from its twin city Jerusalem. Historically and for pilgrimage and tourists purposes, the twin cities have never before been separated. Bethlehem sits practically at the southern border of Jerusalem.

The United Nations when it proposed a Corpus Separatum[xi] idea, Bethlehem and its surroundings, were also included together with Jerusalem. Jerusalem and Bethlehem cannot be separated from each other; their historic, religious and geographic complementarity must be considered in any future political settlement.

In conclusion

  1. The international community should develop the political will to unequivocally oppose unilateral plans to change the status of Jerusalem; to continue to respect Security Council Resolutions 478 and 2334 (stop annexation and further building of settlements in East-Jerusalem); as well as to take measures to ensure an end to the occupation, and its ongoing violations of international law and human rights such as house demolitions in especially East-Jerusalem.
  2. The international community needs to persist in monitoring infractions on the right to free access to holy places by Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike. Maintaining the Status Quo, in spite of talk that circumstances and conditions have changed, should be the basis in regulating relationships to sacred holy places. This is important especially when there are holy sites sacred to more than one religion.
  3. Lastly, the need for a political solution remains paramount. Jerusalem remains a universal city and the international community should do whatever in its means to ensure this character of the city and to ensure access to the relevant holy sites for the different religious communities. Jerusalem will never be one, open city until the reality of two Jerusalems (East and West) is recognised and accepted by both sides. Sustainable peace in Palestine and Israel can only be achieved if Jerusalem remains the current home of Israelis and Palestinians alike and the future capital for their two nations. Jerusalem should be the city of the blessing of all peoples.

“Come and see” is the Biblical call to come to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in order to visit the holy places but at the same time to get in touch with local people. A pilgrimage becomes a quest for spirituality through encounters with other people, and a quest in search of God’s truth. It is recommended for pilgrims to seek people-to-people encounters, a path that leads to mutuality, solidarity and the real discovery of human community. By doing so, pilgrims and all people of good will can support and bless all Palestinian and Israeli peace builders.

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Faith in Action – 800 years of Francis and the Sultan[xii]

Francis of Assisi is commemorated on October 4, 2019. This day is dedicated to Francis’ meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, 800 years ago; a particularly inspiring peace initiative in the time of the Crusades to break through the enemy thinking. Francis and the Sultan is a story of inspiring meeting and peace building. However, if we want to make such moments of reconciliation possible 800 years later, then it will also be necessary to invest more in peace.

On Friday, October 4, 2019, around 2 p.m., simultaneously with Muslims’ afternoon prayers, worldwide church bells will sound as an invitation to pray in solidarity with each other for peace, dialogue and get-together.

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[i] See Luke 10, 1-20
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon%27s_Temple
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Wall
[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Aqsa_Mosque
[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_recognition_of_Jerusalem_as_capital_of_Israel
[vi] https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/ga11995.doc.htm
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Status_Quo_(Jerusalem_and_Bethlehem)
[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Mount
[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel%27s_Tomb
[x] https://www.btselem.org/freedom_of_movement
[xi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_separatum_(Jerusalem)
[xii] https://indianexpress.com/article/research/pope-francis-abu-dhabi-st-francis-sultan-of-egypt-5572722/

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