With its numerous holy places crammed into a square kilometre of tightly built-up space, the old, walled city in the Judean highlands looks as venerable today as it did when Mark Twain saw it more than 130 years ago.
Viewed from the Mount of Olives, it looks benign and at peace, its skyline dominated by the holy places sacred to the three great monotheistic religions. Yet this ancient city, now part of greater Jerusalem, has known little lasting peace.
Over the ages, the mellowed walls of old Jerusalem have echoed to the clash of arms, its labyrinthine streets stained by blood, as conqueror ousted conqueror ? 18 in all in its turbulent history. And, as conqueror replaced conqueror, synagogues, churches and mosques rose on the ruins of pagan temples. Jerusalem became sacred geography for Jews, Christians and Muslims, making it difficult to see the city objectively, as Karen Armstrong notes in her book, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
For followers of the three great faiths, the Holy City has “become bound up with their conception of themselves and the ultimate reality ? sometimes called ‘God’ or the sacred ? that gives our mundane life meaning and value.”
There are few places that have been as scored by religion as Jerusalem’s old city. And few places that can evoke so much passion. Like the air over an industrial city, the air over this city is so saturated with prayers and dreams that it is hard to breathe, an Israeli poet has written. While much of the rest of the world celebrated the start of the third millennium with elaborate festivities, Jerusalem ushered it in under the watchful eyes of military and police.
Fearing acts of violence by religious fundamentalists or political extremists, gun-bearing security personnel guarded Jerusalem’s holy sites as the clock ticked into a new millennium. Christians celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’ birth while Jews and Muslims, who follow their own calendars, observed regular religious rites.
The millennium’s eve happened to coincide with the last Friday in the holy month of Ramadan and an estimated 350,000 Muslims converged on a historic mosque in old Jerusalem for regular Friday noon prayers. The eve marked the start of the Jewish Sabbath when many observant Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall.
The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall as it is sometimes known, is a surviving remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Above the wall, on what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, is a 35-acre area, covering about a fifth of the old city of Jerusalem. With its El Aqsa mosque and imposing gold-topped Dome of the Rock mosque, it is Islam’s third holiest shrine. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional place of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection and one of worlds most revered Christian shrines, is a short walk from here.
After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, Muslims were left in control of their Noble Sanctuary and administer it to this day, much to the chagrin of Orthodox Jews who want to see the mosques replaced by a temple to hasten the arrival of their Messiah.
Israeli-Palestinian clashes over the mount have left dozens dead, and, despite rigid security, the area remains a tinder box. Last year, Israeli police arrested members of the illegal anti-Arab Kach group after they distributed leaflets calling on Jews to “expel the strangers from the Temple Mount.” Among the Kach group were a few American Christian evangelists claiming that the mount is Jewish land according to the Scriptures. Many evangelical Christians believe the rebuilding of the Temple will hasten the return of Christ.
The presence of right-wing Christian evangelical groups, sometimes called Christian Zionists, who support the return of Jews to all of the “biblical” lands, adds yet another twist to the Jerusalem question. With their apocalyptic visions, these groups see the restoration of a Jewish Israel with Jerusalem as its capital as the fulfillment of Scripture.
Dismissed by some as naive tools of Israel, these groups are at odds with mainstream Christian churches in Jerusalem. In an unprecedented joint statement in 1994, all the leaders of the main Christian communities in Jerusalem called for a special judicial and political statute for Jerusalem “which reflects the universal importance and significance of the city.” This position has been endorsed by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.
The future political status of Jerusalem and the status of its holy sites is one of the most explosive issues in ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. After the 1948 war, which resulted in the creation of the State of Israel, Jerusalem was divided into West Jerusalem under Israeli control and East Jerusalem under Jordanian control. With the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, most of its Arab inhabitants, who number about 170,000, opted for Jordanian rather than Israeli passports, and call themselves Palestinians.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish State. Palestinians, referring to UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention, view the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem as an illegal, occupying force.
And, recognizing the unique significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims, last year’s World Council of Churches assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, reaffirmed earlier council positions on the city’s status. Jerusalem, the council said, must be a shared city in terms of sovereignty and citizenship.
The planned Holy Land visit in March of Pope John Paul II is being called a religious pilgrimage to Christianity’s birthplace to mark the Roman Catholic Church’s entry into the third millennium. In all probability it will also have deep political undercurrents.
Michael McAteer is a former religion editor at The Toronto Star.