By now most of you have heard about President Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His decision has evoked concern from various world leaders as well as the religious communities with a stake in the status of Jerusalem. Soon the United States will move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Trump and his supporters contend that this decision will lead to greater peace in the Middle East. Other than the Evangelical Christians, most religious leaders, including Pope Francis, do not think it’s a good idea as a means to greater peace and stability in the region.
Jerusalem and its status as a capital for Israel or the Palestinian people has been one of the more difficult key issues in the peace process. Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 AD until the First World War. Since the 19th century, European leaders were concerned over the status of Jerusalem because it housed some of the holiest sites in Christendom. After the First World War, Great Britain was in control of Jerusalem. The Allied Powers saw a unique role for Jerusalem as an important location for holy sites sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They wanted to safeguard the city and designated it an international city.
The Brits and powers that be in 1947 sought United Nations help in settling the status of Jerusalem. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Partition for Palestine (Resolution 181), which called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. In this agreement Jerusalem was designated as a “corpus separatum,” or “separated body” which was to be administered by the U.N. At that time Jewish representatives accepted the plan, while Palestinians and the Arab countries rejected it, saying it was illegal. In May 1948, Israel was declared by Jews, in what was then Palestine, as a separate State of Israel. This was immediately recognized by the U.S. Israel became a member of the U.N. in May 1949. However, most members of the U.N. that recognized the State of Israel did not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, citing Resolution 181.
Because of the turmoil that surrounded the establishment of the State of Israel and subsequent invasions by various Arab neighbors, the U.N. Resolution 181 never materialized. And the 1949 Armistice Agreements designated Jordan as in control of the eastern part of the city, and the western part of Jerusalem in control of Israel. To this day Israel claims sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem as its capital. David Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem the “Eternal Capital” of Israel in 1949. This claim was strengthened in 1967 after Israel won the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, who attacked Israel. Israel does not recognize any outside views or declarations from world leaders or the U.N. that declares that Jerusalem as anything other than their “Eternal Capital.”
Thrown into this tumultuous secular history is what is known to religious communities as the “status quo.” In a nutshell, the status quo of the Holy Land sites is an understanding among religious communities with respect to the nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It resulted from a decree of Ottoman Sultan Osman III in the 18th century. This decree preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of sites considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims. It also stated that nothing could be changed from the way it was without upsetting the balance of order in maintaining the religious sites for visits by pilgrims.
Recently, Pope Francis called for the status quo of Jerusalem to be respected and for “wisdom and prudence” to prevail to avoid further conflict.
Jerusalem is a city much larger than just the Old City that houses the holy sites, the Western Wall sacred to Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred to Christians and the Dome of the Rock sacred to Muslims. The wider city population is estimated at about 1.2 million people.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.