Christianity and Jerusalem
Present and Future perspectives
By H. B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah
A talk in London

1. On the 14th of November 1994, the heads of the Christian Communities in Jerusalem met to discuss the status of the holy city and the situation of Christians there, at the conclusion of which, they issued a declaration, which until today expresses their common vision and stand. I quote the second paragraph which introduces the whole declaration:

            “Jerusalem is a holy city 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”(Memorandum, par 2)

The second important common stand of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem was their letter dated 17 July 2000, addressed to the three leaders gathered in Camp David, Clinton, Arafat and Barak.

2. To speak about Christianity and Jerusalem, we have always to bear in mind two forms of Christian presence and concern in Jerusalem, distinct but strongly united: the local and the universal, local Palestinian Christians and Christians from all over the world. Both are present in Jerusalem, and both are intimately linked within themselves and with the Holy City.

This is to say that Jerusalem is the Holy City for all Christians in the world, locally or abroad. It is the city of the roots, it is historically the Mother Church. It was always the place of worship and daily living for local Christians. It was always a place of pilgrimage, worship and studies for Christians coming from all the Churches.

3. The universal presence in Jerusalem is manifest by the presence of the religious communities from all over the world and the Churches, Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Many of them spend their life for the sake of Jerusalem and the mystery of Redemption which took place in it. They are not born there but by their prayer, studies, charity, by their life and death in it, they become a part of Jerusalem.

The pilgrims to the Holy Places are another sign of this universality: we indeed consider them as an important part of world Christianity and at the same time a part of our own dioceses in the Holy Land. Their presence is a faith support and witnessing to the same Saviour, Jesus-Christ, which is the main objective of all Christian presence, local or universal.

Lastly the universal presence is manifested by the growing attention of the world Churches to what is going in the Holy Land: to the local Christian presence and to the political conflict requiring the involvement of all Churches, because of their allegiance to Jerusalem, in the difficult quest of justice and peace.

Here I have to say a special thank for the large and generous solidarity shown, during these last months of suffering, towards the Churches of Jerusalem, by so many Churches, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, among which this Bishops' Conference of England was very present.

4. The local presence is small: the 2% of the total population of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. It was more important in some periods in the past. In 1922, some sources say it was 51% in Jerusalem. In 1947, it was still the third of the population of the Holy City. It became smaller in the following years, due to social, economical and especially political factors, i.e. the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Until today, the emigration, for this same political reason, is a phenomenon, which is reducing more and more the proportion of Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

About this issue of emigration, our position as Churches is the following: Christians in the Holy Land are called by God to be Christians in the Holy Land and not elsewhere in the world. Even, when political instability makes the daily life more difficult, Christians should be aware of their identity and mission and remain where they are, where God wants them to be, and give their own contribution in the building of the future. Christian emigration cannot be left to mere human political facts. Christian presence especially in Jerusalem and all the Holy Land is part of the mystery of God in this land, who allowed, in His divine wisdom, Jews, Christians and Moslems to gather and to survive over centuries in this land. Therefore any measure to reconcile Jerusalem, to fix its present and future cannot ignore this dimension of the presence of God in this city and Christian Palestinians who are a part of it.

5. Local Christians, we are a small number. And we are at the same time many Churches, bearing each of us our own memories and wounds. Memories and wounds, we put them all together before the same Jesus-Christ who has gathered us in the past, and gathers us today around the places where he had redeemed and sanctified the world. Today each one of these Churches, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, is faithful to its faith, to its liturgy and ecclesial traditions as received down the centuries. Each one is also sharing in the same effort towards Christian unity in the city where all Christians were born. Indeed, we meet on various occasions. Fraternal spirit reigns among us and common messages are addressed from time to time to our faithful.

The present and the future of Christians depend from this fraternal spirit, and from this common walk towards unity.

6. The Holy Places are a main component of the Christian presence in Jerusalem. Since 1856, in the Congress of Paris, after the war of Crimea, then in 1878 in Berlin following another war between Russia and Turkey, the Statu Quo was established to regulate relations between Christian communities in the Holy Places, mainly in the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of Bethlehem. This same Statu Quo passed after that to the Society of Nations then to the U.N.

The Statu Quo means literally: “things are to remain as they are”, without any prejudice to the rights claimed by any party. This situation helped organize inter-Christian relations as well as the duties of the political governors with this part of Christian presence. Sometimes some misunderstandings happen: but any happening of that sort today is no more powerful enough to separate any community from the general fraternal spirit which prevails among all of us.

The Statu Quo is already a kind of international law which entered Jerusalem, which regulates the relations between Christians themselves on the main Holy Places of Christianity. Successive governments, Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, and Israeli had respected so far these regulations as stated by the Statu quo.

This Statu Quo, one day, when Jerusalem will enjoy more quiet and peaceful times should be revised, in order to create new mechanisms, again without any prejudice to any party, in order to prevent present immobilism or enormous difficulties, when it comes to take practical decisions to improve, to rebuild, to repair, or to saveguard the honour and the reverence due to such places and to prevent abuses by irresponsible or ignorant visitors.

7. Christian presence is also a presence with Islam and Judaism.

Dialogue with Moslems is founded on the basis that both Christians and Moslems are Palestinians, form one people with same history and destiny, and hence they share same sufferings, and same aspirations. The daily life applications of such dialogue is to be worked out, every day for every action in the individual or the public life, for every new legislation in any domain. Relations between Palestinians, Moslems and Christians, is a permanent action tending to build the best way of living together despite the differences in creed, manifested in many aspects of social daily life.

Many wish and thing of the creation of a formal Christian Moslem institution, a body of reflection and creativity, in order to exchange views, to reconcile them, and to go ahead through the complications of the daily life. Because it may happen, consciously or unconsciously, that religion is sometimes reduced to irrational feelings and reactions, on both sides, Christians or Moslems. In order to keep rationality and authenticity in religious life and relations, such stable body will be very useful.

Speaking about religious extremism, one should see the whole reality: extremism and violence are born in situations of injustices, oppressions, humiliations and poverty. Responsible of violence are those who maintain such situations of injustices, humiliations and poverty. The religious vacuum expanding in the modern western world is also a main reason which invite religious extremism to grow. To avoid dangers which can stem from “extremisms”, leaders should work for more justice and equality among the peoples of the earth in general, should work for more presence of God in the society. And in what concerns, Palestine and Israel, leaders should work for the justice required by the Palestinians, which will be in turn the best security required by Israel and all the inhabitants of the region.

8. Interfaith dialogue with Jews.

Many interfaith Christian-Jewish associations exist in Israel. Their dialogue is a continuation or a part of the Christian-Jewish dialogue which started in the West after Council Vatican II. It remains international, with different western historical background, not engaged in the daily realities of Israel itself living with Christians on the same land of Palestine and Israel. A Jewish-Christian dialogue in Palestine and Israel should deal with the daily relations between Christian Palestinians and Jews of Israel, particularly with the issue of justice and peace and equality among all, based on religious values as well as on positive legislation. This kind of dialogue in the Palestinian territories have very discreet and humble existence, for the simple reason of the on-going conflict, though many contacts and discussions are going on beyond the boundaries of the conflict, trying to reflect on human basis about all the tragedy which is still tearing the country and the human beings in it.

9. Finally local Christians are of course a part of the on-going political conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The role of this Christian presence is important, because it is echoed in the universal Church, in all the Churches of the world, and it is supported by a large chain of church solidarity and concern for Christians and for the Holy Places, being the places of the roots. Locally, Christian Palestinians are Palestinians, and hence the direct involvement in the conflict. Anyway being Palestinians and Christians they voice for justice and peace. This claim for justice means claim for freedom, human dignity, the right to have the independent state. It means the end of the military Israeli Occupation in Jerusalem and all the Palestinian Territories, occupied in 1967. As such their claim is Palestinian, but it is just the claim for normal human rights, nothing special or different from the rights of any person or people in the earth, included the Jewish people. What the Jewish people achieved for himself (freedom, independent state), the Palestinian people should be able to achieve for himself (freedom and independent state). For that, the U.N took a number of resolutions. For that, peace talks started since 1993, following the Oslo agreement.

            The words of H.H. Pope John Paul II, in his address to the diplomatic corps, on the occasion of the New Year was very clear. I quote: "This light signals the path of all who in our times in Bethlehem and Jerusalem are struggling on the road to peace. In this part of the world which received God's revelation to man there should be no resignation before the fact that a kind of guerilla warfare has become an everyday event, or in the face of the persistence of injustice, the contempt for international law or the marginalization of the Holy Places and the requirements of the Christian communities. Israelis and Palestinians can only think of their future together, and each party must respect the rights and traditions of the other. It is time to return to the principles of international legality: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations Organization and the Geneva conventions, to quote only the most important. Otherwise, anything can happen: from unilateral rash initiatives to an extension of violence which will be difficult to control".

9.1 Christianity and violence in Jerusalem.

No one supports violence. Because peace, or peaceful ways, can give birth to more peace. Unfortunately all nations in the world were born in wars and bloodshed. It seems that the Palestinian state is not different from all nations of the world. The Jewish state had its period of resistance and violence during the British mandate before 1948, after which the State of Israel was born. History makes all peoples equal in their refusal and condemnation of violence, and in the same time in their forced recourse to violence. Violence is to be condemned. But any form of oppression, of illegitimate military Occupation is a form of violence and a direct invitation to violence. Will humankind be able one day to live without weapons and violence? Those days will be the days of the second coming of Christ, and the entrance in the Kingdom of God, when all earthly kingdoms will have their end.

Violence in Jerusalem is in full contradiction with the nature and the call of the holy city. However, Jerusalem during its long history, though permeated by the mystery of God, knew many forms of violence. Although God wanted it to be the city of reconciliation between men and God, and between men themselves, today it seems to be the city of non-reconciliation, or, to put it in a positive way, a city in which believers in the same God, - yes, He is the same God, Creator of all, Jews, Christians and Moslems - are desperately striving for a difficult reconciliation.

9.2 Concretely, the question of Jerusalem has a double aspect, political and religious. The political question is to be settled by both political parties involved, Palestinians and Israelis, on the basis of the above mentioned principle, the removing of all forms of oppression and occupation, and on the basis of the international resolutions. At this level, the East Jerusalem of 1967can be the capital of Palestine, and the West Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Once the political aspect of the conflict is settled, the second aspect, the religious aspect, is to be approached. The holiness of the city, patrimony of humankind, the Holy places with all their historical requirements, are to be taken in consideration by both political and religious leaders. For the Christian places, Christian leaders of Jerusalem, representing all Christians, will speak with the political authorities. These political authorities have to find the special way which ensures all what is needed to keep the holiness of the city, to respect and safeguard historical and today religious and civil rights, to ensure freedom of worship and freedom of access in all times of peace or war. They should present this special regime to be recognized by the international community, in order to guarantee its stability. It is not any kind of internationalization which takes away the property or the control of the city from the hands of its legitimate local governors, but it is the normal recognition required today for any agreement.

9.3 Christianity today in Jerusalem means also the daily living of local Christians in Jerusalem, with all the exigencies of living: not only freedom of worship, but dignity of life, and equal opportunities for all, to be ruled not by numbers and quantities of citizens, but by the equal right of every religion and every person to enjoy full freedom in his holy city. Christians do not ask for privileges, or for a special protection. They are citizens and believers just like all other citizens. The only protection for all, Jews, Moslems and Christians will be non discriminating and just laws, because the nature of Jerusalem and its divine call cannot admit discrimination or exclusivism.

The Patriarchs and Heads of Christian communities concluded their 1994 document with these words:

"Jerusalem is a symbol and a promise of the presence of God, of fraternity and peace for humankind, in particular for 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, the 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".

10. Conclusion

Our future as Christians in Jerusalem will depend from our present, how we deal with it, how much we accept it and contribute to its building. It depends from the awareness of local Christians themselves of their call: to be the witnesses of Jesus Christ in His land, to be Christians there, and as such to be an integral part of their society, Palestinian, Arab and Moslem; moreover to have a constructive and objective dialogue with Judaism and the Israeli society. Our future depends from our readiness to respond to this call and identity.

The conflict will come one day to an end. But authentic Christian life will always remain a struggle, in order to love and to build. A struggle for a constant ecumenical spirit, for a constant constructive interfaith dialogue, for a constant action for justice and peace. Moreover Christians will remain a small number, but the small number will be also true believers, for whom religion is love, dialogue, sharing, building and overcoming all kinds of difficulties.

We do not promise to our faithful a quiet future, but a difficult one, which needs clear vision of ones' Christian identity and a strong will, in order to remain the living stones, to guard, with their prayers and their services to the society, the Holy Places of their blessed land and to welcome the world Christianity.

London, 23.01.2001