by Father Raed Awad Abu Sahlieh
Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
During the last few weeks, opinions have varied concerning the Christian position on the final status issues of Jerusalem – positions reflecting either the position of the local church in Jerusalem or that of the universal church as represented mainly by the Vatican. There have been so many interpretations of this position, particularly following the letter of the Patriarchs of the Holy Land to the negotiators at the Camp David summit, the declarations of His Holiness Pope John Paul II or those of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Holy See. We can summarise all those statements by saying that Jerusalem needs a special status with international guarantees. For this reason, and to avoid any past ambiguity or future misunderstanding, I would like to explain the Christian position.
First of all, I would like to stress that the Christians in the Holy Land – including those in Jerusalem - are Arab Palestinians who remain an inseparable component of this city. And alongside our Moslem brothers, we form a human, historical and national unity that has lasted for centuries since the "Covenant of the Caliph Omar". Christians here trace their history and presence in this land for two thousand years and are the descendants of the apostles, the forefathers, the prophets and the saints. We are not a weak or alien minority; we are neither tortured nor imported from foreign lands. Rather, we are a small group from within the overall Palestinian people who believe that the Palestinian question, with Jerusalem at its heart, is the core issue that must be resolved in accordance with international legitimacy and with the aim of reaching a just and comprehensive peace.
Therefore, we consider the city of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip as occupied lands. As such, all the rules of International law and the resolutions of the United Nations apply to this conflict and are to be implemented here. Consequently, East Jerusalem must go back to the Palestinians and be under their complete Palestinian sovereignty, and become the capital of the future state. For this reason, we believe that the Palestinian leadership represents all its Moslem and Christian citizens and speaks or negotiates on their behalf in all the international gatherings or meetings. Therefore, we do not consider ourselves a third party in the current negotiations, but remain part of the Palestinian party that represents us without reservation or prejudice.
When the Christian religious leaders demanded to take part in any negotiations concerning the final status of the city of Jerusalem, they did not want to become a third party but simply requested that their opinion should be taken into consideration concerning those fateful resolutions that impact the Christian communities and their holy places. They asked, in particular, that the “special religious and spiritual nature of the Holy City” must be taken into consideration so that it would have a special status that is guaranteed internationally. This is to ensure the fundamental rights not only of Christians but also of Muslims and Jews so that they can all enjoy freedom of worship and free access to the places of worship without any hindrance. For this reason, Jerusalem ought to become an open city for all - not only for Israelis and foreign tourists or pilgrims, but also for the inhabitants of our own country here. However, we can also point out to the need for adhering to the "Status Quo”, an agreement that goes back to the Ottoman era which is internationally recognised and which organises relations between the Christians in the administration of their holy places.
This is what I mean by international guarantees. It is not an internationalisation of the city, as some have understood or explained it. Rather, we demand to have an international body like the United Nations that guarantees the timely implementation of all future agreements. After all, historical experience has taught us that "there are no sacred dates and no sacred covenants" for the Israeli side. We want the world to be a witness to those agreements and to guarantee them.
As for the issue of sovereignty and the administration of the holy city, each side would have its own sovereignty so that we can talk about a concept of ‘sharing without dividing.’ It means that all the city of Jerusalem remains one undivided city with two peoples. The western side becomes the capital for Israel and the eastern side the capital for the Palestinians. The city will remain open to all three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - with each in his own place of worship. This ensures that the city will be one that is open to all the peoples worldwide without any discrimination on the basis of race, religion, language, gender or nationality. As such, Jerusalem will be a centre of universal pilgrimage since it has an Arab, Islamic and universal Christian dimensions. So the issue of the ‘special status’ is a collective pre-requisite that is required by the special spiritual and unique natures of the city since it is holy for all. I believe that the old city in particular could well be declared as a capital for everyone or one for nobody. As such, it would become a “spiritual capital” or “divine capital” or a “capital for God” for all three religions in which the concept of sovereignty will belong to God rather than to one or other political state or party.
Once this creative solution is established for the Old City, we can address the rest of the problem. In that way, there can be a sharing whereby Palestinians and Israelis can have their respective capitals - on condition that there will be no division and the city will remain open to all.
Finally, I would like to explain the concept of ‘protection’ or ‘guarantees’. We do not say that there must be a physical presence of international forces to protect the old city or administer it. Nor do we mean that the Christian side, owing to its small numbers, is afraid about its future or asks for protection because it feels weak or persecuted. No! We are not a third party, and we are not a weak party either, but we constitute an integral component of Palestinian society. Palestinian Muslims and Christians are partners on the same level. We both have our rights as much as our duties. We only ask for international guarantees to all the agreements that will be entered into so that all these agreements will be respected and implemented and that they will not remain a worthless piece of paper. Even the birth of the Palestinian state needs international guarantees that recognise its legality and protect it in the future.
This is the position of the local Church of Jerusalem. It is a position that complies fully with the universal church - and particularly the Vatican. It no longer calls for the internationalisation of Jerusalem as it did previously when it demanded that Jerusalem be a “Corpus Separatum”. Today, it demands a “special status with international guarantees”. This was clearly explained by Archbishop John-Louis Tauran, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Vatican, who participated at the international conference held by His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who has never ceased to defend this concept in all international gatherings.
There is no other position or explanation that can apply to this situation. We propose it, but do not impose it. We hope that it will help reach a just and comprehensive solution to the issue of Jerusalem. After all, this city is the heart of the heart and the soul in the body, and we pray for it to God Almighty day and night.
Pray for the Peace in Jerusalem, Prosperity to your Houses! Peace inside your city walls, Prosperity to your Palaces. Since all are my brothers and friends, I say ‘Peace be with You. Psalm 122.
Fr. Raed Awad Abusahlia
of the latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
Personal Secretary of H.B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah