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12 September 2000

Jerusalem: Who has access to God?
Sara Speicher

Jean Zaru has travelled extensively around the world in her work for justice and reconciliation. But she needs a difficult-to-get special permit just to drive 15 km from her West Bank home in Ramallah to Jerusalem. And "I can't just take my car because Palestinians' cars have different licence plates. Israeli cars have no problem crossing the checkpoints, but I will be stopped."

Zaru, a Quaker and former member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee, talked to a group of US young adults at a 9-15 July WCC-sponsored study seminar on the question of Jerusalem. Describing the restriction of movement, discrimination, and violence she and her family encounter as Palestinian Christians, she said she sometimes wonders whether she is a "second-class child of God".

Zaru is one of over 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip whose access to Jerusalem has been restricted or denied. In 1993, the Israeli government instituted especially restrictive security policies that, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for International Affairs, is "denying Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip entrance to Israel, free movement between the south and north West Bank, and access to Jerusalem".

The status of the city is at the heart of the over-50-year-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The failure of July 2000 talks at Camp David reminded the world of the chasm that still yawns between the present situation and the goal of peace in the region, and that an answer to the question of Jerusalem is still far away.

A Holy and Divided History
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is the site of the Western (Wailing) Wall, the last remnant of the second Jewish Temple, the place where Abraham faithfully prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, while Jerusalem is the place where the church itself began. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest sanctuary of Islam, and the life of the Prophet Mohammed is linked to Jerusalem. The city holds enormous religious significance for millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world. For centuries, it has been a destination of pilgrims as well as a target for empires, crusaders and conquerors.

Since the 19th century, Jerusalem has been the focus of conflicting claims by Jews and Palestinians. These claims have complex political, territorial and religious dimensions, since, as one UN report stated, "both peoples consider the city the embodiment of their national essence and right to self-determination."(1)

Defining the Question
The issue of Jerusalem is a highly complex one, as the thirteen US young adults in the study seminar sponsored by the WCC's International Relations team and USA office discovered.

Stressing that "the issue of Jerusalem is indivisible", the head of the Palestinian Academic Society for International Affairs, Dr Mahdi Abdul Hadi, distinguishes six "components", each of which is inseparable from the others:

Territory - What are the boundaries of Jerusalem under discussion? The Jerusalem boundaries addressed in UN Resolution 181 in 1947 differ from the Jerusalem of 1947-1967. The Israeli government's annexation of land since 1967 has radically changed municipal boundaries, particularly of East Jerusalem.

People - Who is, and will be, a "citizen" of Jerusalem? Palestinians have faced restrictive residency, citizenship and housing policies since 1948, aimed at pushing them out of the western part of the city and separating Palestinians living in East Jerusalem from those living in the West Bank. Their "overriding concern" is how citizens of the future Jerusalem will belong to the overall Palestinian population.

Sovereignty - Who has sovereignty? The Israeli government has claimed that "Jerusalem, whole and united, is the capital of Israel", and wants the city to "remain forever under Israel's sovereignty" (2). Palestinians consider Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian people and their future state.

Civil Society - How should the city be administered? Since 1967, Israel has imposed municipal control throughout Jerusalem. Considering it illegal, Palestinians have resisted this control and have tried "to preserve the Arab character of the city".

Religion - What status do the holy places have, and who has access to them? Open access, freedom of worship, and maintaining "the status quo" for the holy sites are critical issues at stake in the negotiations.

History - How can the city best reflect its long and complex history? Could it ever be considered a Palestinian city? An Israeli city? A Jewish city? A Muslim city? A Christian city? Determining Jerusalem's historical significance involves archeology, architecture and institutional character, all of which reflect a long blending of many cultures and traditions rather than any one religious or cultural dominance.

As negotiators search for solutions, emotions and tensions run deep and it is clear no solution will totally satisfy either side. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer, told the group, "We love the same land. We do not aspire to share the same space. Both want to be ourselves [but] sharing the city is a political inevitability."

Faisal Husseini, PLO Executive Committee member in charge of the Jerusalem file, sees Jerusalem as the key to stability in the Middle East. "Solving the Palestinian problem and having a Palestinian state will help bring stability to the region and more cooperation... Let us make our solution in peace, not to punish each other."

For City Council member Anat Hoffman, Jerusalem's practical problems are magnified by the complexity of the conflict. "If we thought practically," she said, "we could solve anything. But Jerusalem is not just a city, it is a metaphor."

The question of Jerusalem has deep historical, cultural, and religious roots. But answers are needed now for those who, living there, face a tense and uncertain future. The WCC has long maintained that "The question of Jerusalem is not only a matter of protection of the holy places, but is also organically linked with people who live there, their living faiths and communities."

World-wide media attention often focuses on the conflict between two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and two majority religions, Judaism and Islam. Even Christians in other regions sometimes forget that there is a small but significant local Christian presence in Jerusalem and the surrounding region that must deal with a unique double minority situation.

Christians in Jerusalem
Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan noted that the numbers of Christians in Jerusalem are declining and that there are now just 5000 local Christians in the city. He fears that "if you lose the local churches, you lose Christianity in Jerusalem".

Part of the struggle of the churches, he said, is for "equal rights and responsibilities" in Jerusalem, including free access to the holy sites.

His Beatitude Torkom Manoogian, Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, emphasized the long and constant presence of Christians and the church in the Holy Land and the role of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Latin patriarchates to safeguard holy places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under the 1852 "Status Quo" edict. The role and responsibilities of the churches, he noted, must be maintained as the future of the city is discussed.

Palestinian Christians now make up only about two percent of the population in Jerusalem, and three percent in the Occupied Territories. Approximately 59 percent are from the Orthodox traditions, 36 percent are Catholics, and five percent are Protestants.

The 1999 Israel Yearbook and Almanac describe their precarious position by noting that "As Arab Christians they are a double minority: Arabs in the midst of the majority Jewish population of Israel, Christians within Israel's dominantly Muslim Arab society." In addition to differences in size and resources within the Christian community, "those who emphasize their Palestinian identity find themselves in an inferior position vis--vis the Israelis."

To complicate matters still further, Israeli Jews often perceive Christians as a double majority - part of the large Arab world and larger Christian population. Muslims connect local Christians with the powerful Christian west and rarely view them as an "imperilled minority".

Thus the local Christian community must work carefully to raise the concerns of Christians in the final status negotiations and to encourage peace and justice on the ground. One such grassroots effort is the Sabeel Ecumenical Center.

Jean Zaru, vice-chair of Sabeel's board and one of its founding members, says the centre works at "building a pluralistic society" and "providing a faith-based approach to peace and justice". Inter-religious sensitivity is a key, and at times there is tension with the international Christian community. "Some fundamentalist Christians call Islam 'satanic', which makes my life as a Christian involved in interfaith activities more difficult," she explains. Historically, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries in the region. "Palestinians are Christians and Muslims but one people", says Father Maroum Laham, rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Jerusalem.

The local Christian community is unanimous in calling for a city open to the three monotheistic faiths. "History is our teacher," says Father Laham, "Whenever Christians or other religions have tried to claim ownership over Jerusalem, they were rejected. It is clear that Jerusalem cannot be long under one faith or one people."

In an historic 1994 statement, the Joint Memorandum of Their Beatitudes and of the Heads of Christian Communities in Jerusalem on the Significance of Jerusalem for Christians, the leaders of the Christian communities called on all parties "to go beyond 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 WCC and Jerusalem
In support of its member churches in the Holy Land and on behalf of the global Christian community, the WCC has addressed the question of Jerusalem on various occasions since 1948. Most recently, its eighth assembly in Harare in 1998 adopted a statement on the status of Jerusalem that reaffirmed earlier positions that "Jerusalem is a holy city for three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - who share responsibility to cooperate to ensure that Jerusalem be a city open to the adherents of all three religions". The statement also notes that:

  • The peaceful settlement of Palestinian and Israeli territorial claims should respect the holiness and wholeness of the city.
  • Acess to the holy places, religious buildings and sites should be free, and freedom of worship must be secured for people of all faiths.
  • Free access to Jerusalem must be assured and protected for the Palestinian people.
  • Jerusalem must be a shared city in terms of sovereignty and citizenship.

    Possible answers - or more questions?
    Many proposals for Jerusalem's future have been put forward since 1947, from giving the city special international status to divided sovereignty and control. At the July 2000 Camp David meeting, the status of Jerusalem was discussed for the first time in the history of the peace talks and, while no agreement was reached, the fact that the discussion occurred gives some hope.

    People of three faiths eagerly await these signs of hope. "Jerusalem should remain a city of God and accessible to all people," says His Beatitude Michel Sabbah of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, "It should not be governed like any other city in the world."

    Millions of believers have come to Jerusalem to pray over stones. Believers need also to pray for the city's "living stones", its people, for peace and for an answer that will make Jerusalem a holy city indeed.

    (1) The Status of Jerusalem (1997) - Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR) Study. DPR is part of the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat. UN Documents on Jerusalem can be found on the web at:

    (2) Law Enacted by Israel's Knesset Proclaiming Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, 29 July 1980; Guidelines of the Government of Israel, June 1996.

    Unless otherwise stated, the source for statistics used in this article come from the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).

    Sara Speicher is a member of the WCC's Public Information Team.

    Photos of Jerusalem are available on this website at:PhotoOikoumene

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    The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.