April 1996, pgs. 10, 103
Jerusalem: A City of Three Faiths
by Grace Halsell
Last year, 440,000 Americans visited the Holy Land. Most wanted to see the Bethlehem site where Christ was born and Jerusalem, where he spent his most memorable days. In travels on six continents, I have visited many holy sites, none so meaningful to me as Jerusalem. Almost two decades ago, I lived a while in an Old City Roman Catholic convent called Ecce Homo, a name deriving from the words "Behold the man" spoken of Christ by the Roman Pontius Pilate. Ecce Homo, which, like other convents in the Old City, has rooms for rent, faces onto the Via Dolorosa. Often, leaving the convent, I trod the same route that Christ had walked to Golgotha.
Earlier this year I was one of 300 Christians representing more than 30 countries attending an international ecumenical conference on "The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians and of Christians for Jerusalem." Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem and all the Holy Land, gave the opening session's keynote address. Later, in a private interview granted three U.S. reporters, the patriarch urged that co-religionists see not only the "holy stones" of this city but also meet their co-religionists, the Palestinian Christians, the "living stones", residing here since the days of Christ.
In any reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, "religious leaders must lead the way," the patriarch said. "The hearts here have been very wounded. Religious leaders must educate the people to see the other,not as an enemy but as a neighbor. The voice of political leaders is not enough. There must be religious leaders giving direction."
South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu has been cited as an example of how strife-torn communities must benefit by using religious leaders in negotiations, which is what Patriarch Sabbah believes necessary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He pointed out that religious directives are important "because how you live your life is based on what is in your heart." As for the Israelis who claim Jerusalem belongs exclusively to them, "Israel must educate its ultra-orthodox,the more rigid people grow, the more difficult it becomes to make peace." He repeatedly has told Israelis that in order to establish a spirit of peace, they must "take the soldiers out of our daily life," a reference to Israeli occupation forces that have ruled over Palestinians for the past 29 years.
The patriarch urged local inhabitants and all believers to unite for the preservation of Jerusalem as a pluralistic open city for everyone. "If the Israeli Jews insist on having a capital here, it does not rule out Jerusalem being the capital for Palestinians," the patriarch said. "The Israelis have their building for parliament eight kilometers from here. It could be the same for the Palestinians, that they have their house of parliament eight kilometers from here."
In solving problems, "nothing is impossible," said Patriarch Sabbah, the first native Palestinian to hold the office in modern times. Born in 1933 in Nazareth, he was named patriarch in December 1987 and installed in January 1988. A warm, friendly leader with a sense of humor, he impressed this visitor as one who never forgot where he was born and that he serves the people among whom he grew up.
"While the Vatican is in dialogue with Israel, it is not speaking in a vacuum," the patriarch said. "There is a local church and a local community, and the message to Israel is simple: you must listen to the local church." He made clear the "local church" means Palestinian Christians whose voices, along with those of Muslim Palestinians, must be heard.
"God is everywhere," he said. "But there is only one Jerusalem. We are the people of Jerusalem. Jerusalem belongs to us. We have to govern Jerusalem." In any final solution, "there must be international guarantees for peaceful co-existence in Jerusalem. If not, we are at the mercy of any government.
"Israel has now closed off Jerusalem for Palestinians," he said, referring to roadblocks erected by Israelis that prevent Palestinians from having access to the Holy City. "No local government should be permitted to do this."
While Patriarch Sabbah strongly urges international guarantees for freedom of access in Jerusalem, he does not favor internationalization of the city. "That would mean giving up what you have," he said.
"The Holy See has been supporting Palestinians from 1948 until now," he continued. "Since the Vatican has recognized Israel by formal relations, it now makes our voice stronger. There are five realities, the three faiths of the Holy Land plus the representatives of Palestinians and Israelis. Negotiations must deal with these five realities if there is to be peace."
He was pleased that church council or synod meetings now are focused "to have a common vision for all Christians." Also, he said, several committees are in place in Jerusalem, as in Rome, preparing commemorations in the year 2000 of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The patriarch spoke of the link of a Catholic ecumenical committee with a Muslim committee. Asked if joint meetings of Catholics and Muslims to plan for the Year 2000 celebration might disturb the Israelis, he responded, "It is perhaps very human to be bothered when you see the other side growing." He pointed out that "for Muslims, Christ is a prophet. For Israeli Jews, Christ is a negative."
The patriarch said he was pleased with a growing ecumenical spirit among Christians. He cited the gathering of 5,000 Christians from all over Israel, Palestine and Jordan in the village of Beit Jala almost a year ago. In the same spirit, he said, they are marching together toward the Year 2000 in a spiritual renewal. On the practical and pastoral level this means hundreds of "synod animators" carrying the message to parishes and institutions,to Maronites, Latins, Melchites, Assyrians, Armenians and Coptics.
Special commissions are meeting throughout the world to ensure that celebrations as the Third Millennium begins are not merely secular events. Naturally, the land of Christ's birth sees itself as a focal point and even model for others. As for working in an ecumenical spirit, the patriarch is fond of saying, "I would rather walk three steps together than one mile alone."
Patriarch Sabbah received the three American reporters in a small room in the Latin Patriarchate-Diocese of Jerusalem in the Old City,one of the few remaining examples in the world of a completely walled town. The walls stand partially on the foundations of Hadrian's Square, built in 135 A.D. They include remains of earlier walls: those of King Herod in 37 B.C., Agrippa in 41 A.D., and Saladin, 1187. The final rebuilding of the walls was by the Ottoman Turkish Muslim, Suleiman the Magnificent, in the 16th century.
The holy shrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam lie within these old walls. Ironically, these most holy shrines are not in a special setting but in a congested, noisy Arab market or souq. I usually entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate, built by Suleiman in 1537 as the main entrance to his fortress. Not grandiose as measured by modern skyscrapers encircling Jerusalem, yet with its solid wings, turrets and massive tower, it projects strength, beauty and endurance and for me is far more beautiful than any edifice in New Jerusalem.
For Jews, the most holy site is the Western or Wailing Wall. Religious Jews say the wall is a remnant of Solomon's Temple, but it is in fact part of the outer wall of Herod's Temple. It has been historically established that Solomon's Temple was completely demolished more than once. Many archeologists have dug here, and they have not come up with any remnants of Solomon's Temple.
Nevertheless, the tradition holds that Solomon's Temple sat on the summit of this holy mount, and after it was destroyed the Jews came to the Western Wall of Herod's Temple to bewail its destruction. The site became known as the Wailing Wall, and it is the only old site where the Jews pray in Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock
A Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, usually dominates any photograph of Jerusalem. It is located in the vast Haram al-Sharif "Sacred Place" that encompasses both the al-Aqsa mosque, a basilica, and the Dome of the Rock, a cupola building. The octagonal masterpiece is fashioned with blue and green tiles that shine in the Mediterranean light with fierce prismatic symmetry. It has a large yet graceful dome of gold. The shrine houses a gigantic rock said to be the foundation stone of the universe. The al-Aqsa mosque is vast,I have seen 10,000 Palestinians praying there,with an overflow crowd in the courtyard in front of the mosque. Long before the advent of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, the area was considered sacred by early inhabitants.
On several occasions, I have gone for mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, called the greatest shrine in all Christendom. It is a sprawling construction that has been built and destroyed and rebuilt and enlarged so often one hardly knows where to look for beauty or for the aspect that will awe or inspire or make one closer to the Eternal. Some 300 years after Christ was born, the Emperor Constantine saw a cross in the sky and a message, "In this sign, you will conquer." Constantine then sent his mother, Queen Helena, to the Holy Land to build shrines to Christ. Helena commissioned the building of the Church of the Nativity on the Bethlehem site where Christ was born, as well as a church overlooking Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
In the center of its entrance hall, I descended a flight of steps to the spot where, we are told, Queen Helena found the True Cross, the site of the Crucifixion, Golgotha or Calvary. The golden-domed rotunda contains what is said to be the Holy Sepulcher,the burial site of Christ.
In the January 1996 conference on Christianity and Jerusalem I attended, one speaker, Canon Naim Ateek of St. George Episcopal Church, gave the history of Jerusalem, relating how, four or five thousand years ago, early Amorites established this site as a religious foundation to honor their god. Then came the Canaanites, and they made Jerusalem an early center of worship.
"All of this history predates the arrival of the Hebrews by many centuries," he said. There were countless battles over Jerusalem, with the Hebrews in power only 60 years. Canon Ateek pictured Jerusalem as "a rich mosaic that has taken thousands of years. We have a cumulative history. Christians need to witness the power of God to bring reconciliation of Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of justice. Jerusalem cannot be exclusively Israeli, it must be shared religiously and politically."
In a closing message, the participants, representing laypeople and clergy, including church leaders of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant faiths, said they were "appalled by the effects of the closure of Jerusalem on Palestinian life. Since 1967 Jerusalem has been off limits to more than 14 million Arab Christians, as well as to Arab Muslims, and since 1993 it has been off limits to Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza."
Christians coming from India, Australia, Korea, Great Britain, South Africa, Canada and the United States as well as other countries were easily permitted to reach Jerusalem, but native Palestinians living near the Holy City were not. Although Jerusalem is holy to one billion Christians and one billion Muslims as well as about 14 million Jews, the Israelis who illegally annexed Arab East Jerusalem with its holy shrines do not permit free access.
The Rev. Samir Kafity, president bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, said, "Thirty percent of the world is Muslim and 30 percent of the world is Christian. With the Israeli closure of Jerusalem, 60 percent of the world's people need the permission of the Israelis to come and pray in Jerusalem."