The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians and of Christians for Jerusalem

by Patriarch Michel Sabbah

January 21, 1996

1. As-Sabeel Center, animated by Pastor Naim Ateeq and a team of Christian thinkers, lay and clergy, has invited us this week to reflect upon "The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians". Of course, we do know and we insist upon the fact that Jerusalem is holy for the three relgions all together: Judaism, Islam and Christianism.

But in this conference, during this week, we are invited to look upon one of Jerusalem's three aspects, the Christian one.

I hope that the reflections and discussions of this week will lead us, as Christians, to formulate an objective and clear vision for Jerusalem, a vision compatible with the nature of Jerusalem, as a city of God and men. This vision will be the deepening of the memorandum of the Patriarchs and Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem, and in this quality, it will be a reference for Christians Moslems and Jews, when the question of Jerusalem will be discussed and its final status will be decided.

2. The Memorandum of the Patriarchs and Christian Heads of Jerusalem was published in November 1994. The memorandum gives, first, basic characteristics, historical and religious, indicating the christian significance of Jerusalem. In the conclusion, it gives some necessary elements for any possible solution. The definitive and concrete solution remains the task of both political leaders and specialists, who are invited to take into consideration this document of Christian Leaders, in which they will find the Christian position on Jerusalem.

3. Basic characteristics or Jerusalem, historical and religious:

3.1 Sucessive conquests and changes of peoples.

"Jerusalem has known numerous wars and conquests.. Religious motivations has always gone hand in hand with political and cultural aspirations, and has often played a preponderant role. This motivation has often led to exclusivism or at least to the supremacy of one people over the others. But every exclusivity or every human supremacy is against the prophetic character of Jerusalem. Its universal vocation and appeal is to be a city of peace and harmony among all who dwell therein" (Memo 5).

3.2 Jerusalem is a holy city for the three reilgions: Judaism, Islam and Christianism

3.3 Permanence of Christian presence sizice 2000 years

"For almost two thousand years, through so many hardships and the succession of so many powers, the local Church with its faithful has always been actively present in Jerusalem. Across the centuries, the local Church has been witnessing to the life and preaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus-Christ, upon the same Holy Places, and its faithful have been receiving other brothers and sisters in the faith, as pilgrims, residents or in transit, inviting them to be reimmersed into the refreshing, ever living ecclesiastical sources.That continuing presence of a living Christian community is inseparable from the hisotrical sites. Through the living stones the holy archeological sites take on life" (Memo 9).

Therefore to the question, often asked, "Who are the Christians today of Jerusalem and the Holy Land?", the answer is the following: they are the heirs of the first Church of Jerusalem and the guarantee of its continuity along centuries and through the vicissitudes and changes of states, peoples and languages: biblical hebrew, syrian-aramaic, latin, greek, armenian, coptic and finally arabic which became the common language, since the seventh century, while other languages remained and survived until today as liturgical or ethnical and national languages.

3.4 The christian attachement to Jerusalem is based on the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testament: "Through the Prayerful reading of the Bible, Christians recognize in faith that the long history of the people of God, with Jerusalem as its centre, is the history of salvation which fulfils God's design in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ" (Memo 6).

"In the Gospels, Jerusalem rejects the Sent-One, the Saviour; and he weeps over it, because this city of Prophets, that is also the city of the essential salvific events, has completely lost sight of the path to peace" (Lk 19:42) (Memo 6). In it was accomplished the mystery of Redemption, in it Jesus taught, died on the Cross, resurrected in glory from the dead and ascended to heaven. In it, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, and sent them to proclaim the good news of salvation to Jerusalem and to the whole world. So was born the first Church in Jerusalem. Until today, Jerusalem remains the Mother Church for all Churches in the world, and the Mother city for every Christian, wherever.

3.4 Jerusalem center of spirituality and piligrimage.

Jerusalem became soon a source of spiritual and deep significance: it is the image of the Church, the New Jerusalem (Rev 3:12 and 12:2) "This holy city is the image of the new creation and the aspirations of all peoples, where God will wipe away all tears and "there shall be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the former world has passed away" (Rev 21:4) (Memo 6).

The pilgrimage slowly developed an understanding of the need to unify the sanctification of space through celebrations at the Holy Places with the sanctification in time through the calendered celebrations of the holy events of salvation " (Memo 8).

4. Local Christians and their relation with the Universal Church.

As local Christians, we are aware that Jerusalem belongs to us for two reasons, religious and civil, while all Christians of the world have concern in Jerusalem on religious grounds only. We have the duty and the right to welcome in Jerusalem all Christians of the world and to serve them in their pilgrimage and in their faith relation to the same Mother city.

This relation between local Churches and the Universal Church is a normal and vital one, and it is conform to the nature of the Church. If it is well understood and well lived, it cannot lead to any contradiction between the double loyalty to the Church and to the nation. It is normal that from time to time these relations between local und Universal Curch are questioned. Confusion indeed can easily arise in this field, as it happened in these last years concerning relations of the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the Holy See, with the State of Israel.

In what concerns our subject, the position of the Catholic Universal Church regarding Jerusalem is the following:

First, the Universal Church expresses the universal concern of all Catholics regarding Jerusalem. This universal concern implies no political claims, but adresses itself to all responsible political authorities. It requires from them the guarantee of the free access for all believers and the freedom of worship with all its consequences. It leaves to the local Church the task to give more precisions and to take a clearer and more concrete position regarding a question which concerns it in its daily life as Church and as people, who has his rights and duties, and his claims concerning those rights and duties.

Second, as world moral authority, it supports the right of peoples and nations, in conflictual circumstances, but it does not take the place of any people or nation and cannot talk in their name, except if is formally called or invited to do so by one or by both parties, which is not the case for Jerusalem.

The position of the Holy See regarding Jerusalem is the following: the sovereignty over Jerusalem concerns two parties, Palestinians and Israelis. Both of them are responsible to define their own respective positions and to come to a mutual agreement. When such agreement is reached, the Holy See requires from both parties to respect the attachement of all Christians to the Holy City, and to respect the duties and rights of local Christians. But local Christians have first the responsibility to define by themselves their own rights and duties.

5. Necessary elements mentioned by the Memorandum for any possible solution for the question of Jerusalem.

5.1 Jerusalem has two essential and inseparable dimensions. First it is a holy city. Second it is a city where local Christians live until today. It is "their native city where they live, whence their right to continue to live therefreely, with alt the rights which obtain from that" (Memo 10), similar in that and equal to all citizens, without any distinction or discrimination. These fights are general and concern their contribution in all institutions and public life of the state; they are also special and concern the Church as religious institution with all its requirements for its religious, and spiritual development and growth.This spiritual growth being the source of their force and contribution in the civil and public life.

Therefore, when we call our local Christians to live up to the requirements of their faith, we do not call them to a sterile and narrow-minded confessionnalism, but to enrich themselves with the spiritual riches which they have at hand in their biblical and in their respective religious traditions. To practice agnosticism or indifferentism in order to avoid confessionnalism means depriving one's people and country from riches which our Moslem brothers and sisters are entitled to wait from loyal Christian citizens.

5.2 Christians recognize to all believers, Moslems and Jews, same rights and duties, and share with them in claiming these rights, in any status which the city will have, as decided by its own children.

5.3 Jerusalem is a holy city for all Christians, local and worldwide. Therefore freedom of access should be guaranteed as already mentioned. The local Church should be rendered able to welcome the universal Church in its needs, concerning pilgrimage, worship and studies. Political authority should guarantee the required freedom for that.

5.4 Historic rights of different local Churches as defined and stated by the Statu Quo should be respected by any political power.

5.5 Jerusalem requires a special status, given its pluralistic and religious importance. The memorandum says: "In order to satisfy the national aspirations of all its inhabitants, and in order that Jews, Christians and Muslims can be "at home" in Jerusalem and at peace with one another, representatives ftom the three monotheistic reflgions, in addition to local political powers, ought to be associated in the elaboration and application of such a special statute" (Memo 14/1)

The guiding principle in this elaboration is the following: to give Jerusalem a defintive stability, so that it will never remain a source of war between peoples and religions.

For that, as three religions are represented in Jerusalem, Judaism, Islam and Christianism, and two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, these five components should be taken into consideration in order to find the suitable final and defintive status for the holy city. If one of these five elements is neglected no stability would be reached, no peace and no reconciliation. For that, political leaders and religious leaders should make common efforts to find their way in this delicate and sensitive question.

Then the memorandum says: "Because of the universal significance of Jenesalem, the international community ought to be engaged in the stability and permanence of this statute. Jerusalem is too precious to be dependent soleley on municipal or national political authorhies, whoever they may be. Experience shows that an international guarantee is necessary" (Memo 14/2)

This clause of the memorandum was misunderstood by many. Some 5understood it as an invitation for a kind of internationalization. This is not the true meaning. The dignity and the destiny of Jerusalem remains in the hands of its children. Its sovereignty also and its government. It is up to the local political forces, Israelis and Palestinians, to come to an agreement and to define the definitive status of Jerusalem. Then, as any nation hastens to stabilize its own existence through recognition and guarantees by the international community, so it will be for Jerusalem, as soon as its new and definitive status will be born. It will require to be stabilized by guarantees given by the international community.

Moreover there is a special vision which derives from the nature of Jerusalem as holy city which should be always open in all circumstances of war or peace. According to this vision it should be above all hostilities and wars. Historic experience shows that it is impossible for any governernent to isolate any of its towns from general security circumstances. Therefore boarders are closed in time of war in face of all enemies and opened for friends only. This happened and happens until today regarding the holy city. Jerusalem is today opened to all friends all over the world but closed, for security reasons, in face if its children and the nearest to it in Palestinian towns and villages.

This fact requires its children, who are its governors and the guardians of its dignity and holy character, to give it a special status which will be conform to its dignity and holiness, in all circumstances of peace or war. In our hands God has put a city he has chosen and made unique among all cities in the world. Therefore it needs a unique status which wfll di Sn nguish it from all cities of the worid, and put it above all security circumstances. So it will remain a oasis, a city of stable and defintive peace, for the good and the peace of the region and the world. When Israelis and Palestinians will agree on this vision, when believers of the three religions will agree on this vision, they will have made a historical and decisive step, which will introduce the region and the world in a new historical phase.

6. In past history, in all its periods, Jerusalem was in the hand of one political power corresponding to or supported by one religion. We have not to judge these periods. They are history. They are our common history. But we profit from the lessons of the past, negative or positive, to reconsider our present and prepare our future. From our past we take the spirit which suppons jus bce and love, in order to build the new society of the Holy Land. Exclusivism nourishes wars and hostility, today and tomorrow, as it was in the past. To reach a position of stable peace, the unique status for Jerusalem is the solution. Each one of its children, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Crhistians and Moslems, should feel at home and should enjoy same freedom and same duties and rights. No one should feel himself as guest or stranger in his own city. No one should be put in the situation of asking for protection from any one else, and no one in his own home and city is willing to be only the guest or submitted to another For a'] of us, chi]dren of Jerusalem, despite national and religious differences, our future is to be one family of the Holy Land. Many purifications and rectifications have to be done in order to reach that stage.

7. Jerusalem today is a disputed city, because of its sanctity and religious character. All three concerned religions agree that this city is the city of God and of His Prophets. The way God wanted for believers is not mutual wars, although we find human history full of religious wars, although we find the spirit of war even in Holy Scripture, in its human and linguistic expression. Despite that, the commandment of God to humankind is: kown each other, love each other and collaborate for the good of all. Therefore human and linguistic expresion should be correctly understood and interpreted, in order to reach the authentic meaning of the Revelation of God. The criterium of this purification of mind and heart is to be found in the conformity between our understanding of Holy Scripture and the attributes of God who is love, who is merciful, and who is holy, and who invites all humankind to be liberated from all forms of evil, as persons and peoples. So Holy Scripture will help to understand the true nature of Jerusalem and with this true understanding we will be able to find the convenient solution for our common Jerusalem, city of God and of all his children, whom he wanted to live in it, two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, and three religions, Judaism, Christianism and Islam. We ask God to help us find the right solution for the Holy City, to help us walk in love and justice, so that we will be able to make out of Jerusalem the city of reconciliation for us, for the region and for all humankind.

+Michel Sabbah Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, 21 January 1996 As-Sabeel Center