JERUSALEM: A HOLY CITY* By Michel Sabbah
**Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar, ed. What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018.
**Michel Sabbah is Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem. He was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1987 to 2008, the first non-Italian to hold this position in more than five centuries. He was born in Nazareth, studied at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, and was ordained in Nazareth in 1955. He received his doctorate in Arab philology from the Sorbonne. During his priesthood, he served in parishes in the diocese, as the diocesan youth director and the director of education, and as the President of Bethlehem University. Among his many publications is Faithful Witness: On Reconciliation and Peace in the Holy Land (Hyde Park, NY, 2009), edited by Drew Christiansen, S. J. and Saliba Sarsar.
The Nature of Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a holy city involved, as all cities in the world, in human history and all aspects of nationalism, security, war, and peace. It is holy for the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has a universal dimension and identity. Today, it is the center of war and peace for the two peoples living in it, Palestinian and Israeli.
Jerusalem is the city of God (Ps 134:21). It is a sign, a place of the presence of God on earth, for the common people, as well as for the political leaders. For those who believe, dealing with Jerusalem is dealing with God, not only with national or other human dimensions. Those who believe in Jerusalem as a holy city, or those who pretend to act in Jerusalem in the name of God – as it is the case in our days, in the endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict – should ensure that their action in Jerusalem conform to the holiness of God. In their action today in Jerusalem, the political leaders and even religious believers in the holiness of Jerusalem are exactly opposed to its holiness. They are far from God.
All those who are imposing temporal sovereignty on Jerusalem, if truly they believe in its holiness, should follow only the ways of God. War is not a way of God. Hating the other, seeing an enemy in the other, is not a way of God. Killing, demolishing homes, excluding a part of its population, and trying to make Jerusalem a city only for one people – all these are not a way of God. This reflection applies to Palestinians and Israelis, and the international community concerned about the question of Jerusalem. War is not a way of God. In war, Jerusalem loses its holiness – and let not “the military” pretend that Jerusalem for them is holy – but in peace, the leaders strive with the ways of God to restore to it and its inhabitants its very nature of city of God. This is the only way that will lead normally to the needed security and definitive peace and reconciliation. In war there is no security. When one community oppresses another, there will be no security: there will be oppression, resistance, and reprisals. Where there is justice and respect of the other, when in the holy place, the strong sees the holiness of God and the holiness of the human person created by God, then, there will be peace and security. The strong can say: this is utopia. Without war, we cannot have security. This also means that we will remain in a situation of war, of killing and being killed, oppressing and being resisted by those who are oppressed.
The believer, using war as the only way to stay in Jerusalem, despite all the external declaration of having historical and religious rights, loses his/her own soul as well as his/her historical and religious rights. To deal with Jerusalem as any other city in the world is to make it a place of war, is to lose its true nature, and hence to lose all rights founded on its holiness.
To make Jerusalem a city for one people is also against the nature of Jerusalem. In a past period, Jerusalem was the religious center of Judaism and the Jewish people. But, history moved, and opened Jerusalem to all peoples. God, Lord of history, made Jerusalem a center of Christianity, where Christianity was born. Centuries later, Muslims came and for them too Jerusalem became holy. Therefore, Jerusalem today belongs to all – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – and to the two peoples living in it – Palestinians and Israelis – all believing in the same God, all believing in its holiness, all equal in history and in human and political life. No one can appropriate exclusively Jerusalem without contradicting its very nature as holy and city of God, and as a universal city for the three religions.
Jerusalem today is a holy city and a sign of contradiction. Instead of seeing in Jerusalem the face of God in every human being, the other is seen as an enemy to hate and to kill. Instead of all its inhabitants being equal in dignity and humanity before God, one is occupier and the other is occupied.
God is a God of love. He is not a God of death, of hatred, of demolishing houses, of excluding others. God is not “God of armies,” though it is a biblical name for God. It is time to liberate God from the nationalistic, exclusivist human positions. God is God of all his creatures, including Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Either Jerusalem is a holy city or a city of war. It must be a place of living for two peoples, living in peace, making it a place of prayer, and of coming nearer to God and to all his creatures, seeing no one as enemy. But making it a place of war, making the prayer itself, the praise of God, a curse of God’s creatures, whatever the reason, contradicts the nature of the holy city.
Today’s reality of Jerusalem shows actions in contradiction with the holiness of God and of humanity. All interested in Jerusalem, especially for religious reasons, all those who love Jerusalem are called to stop war in Jerusalem, to go through a moment of self-purification, in order to be able to assimilate the true significance of Jerusalem, for God and humanity. They are called to liberate Jerusalem from war and death, and to make it a city of life, of salvation for all its inhabitants and for the world. This is the duty of Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community. This is the duty of all churches in the world. They are called to practice their mission of reconciliation. Churches through dialogue, through understanding of the true universal religious nature of Jerusalem, should minister in Jerusalem as agents of reconciliation, justice, and peace. They cannot neglect this ministry in Jerusalem. They should overcome political positions and implement their prophetic role, not making anyone stronger to make war against the other, but helping everyone, to reconcile, to be secure, and to live in justice and peace.
When leaders put God, who is love and justice, in their earthly vision, then they will find peace for themselves and for the world. Jerusalem cannot be except as a source of peace and justice. If not, it will be a source of war, as it is now for itself and for the world.
Messages of the Patriarchs and Heads of Jerusalem
The Patriarchs and Heads of Jerusalem published a statement on the Christian significance of Jerusalem on November 14, 1994 (Appendix I) and a second one on September 29, 2006 (Appendix II). During the first direct talks between political leaders, they expressed also their position in a letter that was sent to the leaders on July 17, 2000 (Appendix III). A fourth formal intervention was the Churches’ message from Jerusalem to Israelis and Palestinians on their 60 years, in May 2008 (Appendix IV).
The Patriarchs and Heads of Jerusalem said in their various documents and statements: “Jerusalem is a city holy for the people of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Its unique nature of sanctity endows it with a special vocation: calling for reconciliation and harmony among people, whether citizens, pilgrims, or visitors. And because of its symbolic and emotive value, Jerusalem has been a rallying cry for different revived nationalistic and fundamentalist stirrings in the region and elsewhere. And, unfortunately, the city has become a source of conflict and disharmony. It is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab disputes. While the mystical call of the city attracts believers, its present unenviable situation scandalizes many.”
“When the different sides involved now speak of Jerusalem, they often assume exclusivist positions. Their claims are very divergent, indeed conflicting. The Israeli position is that Jerusalem should remain the unified and eternal capital of the State of Israel under the absolute sovereignty of Israel alone. The Palestinians, on the other hand, insist Jerusalem should become the capital of a future State of Palestine; although they do not lay claim to the entire modern city, but envisage only the eastern, Arab part.”
They concluded by saying: “Every exclusivity or every human supremacy is against the prophetic character of Jerusalem. Its universal vocation and appeal [lead it] to be a city of peace and harmony among all who dwell therein.”
“Indeed, the experience of history teaches us that in order for Jerusalem to be a city of peace, no longer lusted after from the outside and thus a bone of contention between warring sides, it cannot belong exclusively to one people or to one religion. Jerusalem should be open to all, shared by all. Those who govern the city should make it “the capital of humankind.” This universal vision of Jerusalem would help those who exercise power there to open it to those who are also fondly attached to it and to accept sharing it with them.
Thus the significance of Jerusalem for Christians has two inseparable fundamental dimensions: 1. A Holy City with Holy Places most precious to Christians because of their link with the history of salvation fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ and simultaneously, it is equally holy for Jews and Muslims. 2. It is a city with a community of Christians that has been living there continually since its origins. Thus, for the local Christians, as well as for local Jews and Muslims, Jerusalem is not only a holy city, but also their native city where they live, whence their right to continue to live there freely, with all the rights obtaining from it. All this presupposes a special judicial and political statute for Jerusalem that reflects the universal importance and significance of the city.
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 from the three monotheistic religions, in addition to local political powers, ought to be associated in the elaboration and application of such a special statute.
Because of the universal significance of Jerusalem, the international community ought to be engaged in the stability and permanence of this statute. Jerusalem is too precious to be dependent solely on municipal or national political authorities, whoever they may be.
Therefore, it is necessary to accord Jerusalem a special statute that will free Jerusalem from laws imposed as a result of hostilities or wars, and to be an open city that transcends local, regional, or world political troubles. This statute, established in common by local political and religious authorities, should also be guaranteed by the international community.
Jerusalem today is in a situation of war. It lives a situation that contradicts its nature to be holy and source of peace for its own inhabitants and all humankind. There is war because of exclusivist religious and political attitudes. True political leaders and church leaders, local and international, should consider Jerusalem, first, as a universal city, and then look at the local exigencies of its two peoples. None can appropriate it in exclusivist ways. All parties concerned should go beyond all exclusivist visions or actions, and without discrimination, they must consider the religious and national aspirations of others in order to give back to Jerusalem its true universal character and to make of the city a holy place of reconciliation for humankind.
Jerusalem is the city of God (Ps 134:21). The cry of Prophet Jeremiah “Reform, Jerusalem” (Jer 6:8) should also be heard today, and Jerusalem be founded on Justice (Is 54:1-17).
Either Jerusalem is a holy city, a city of God, or a city without God, and then a city of war.
If God is away from Jerusalem, and the very things of God are merely in human hands and converted only in national interests, Jerusalem will remain a city of war, of hatred, and death, demolition, exclusion, and actions against God and humans, as it is now, despite all claims of history or religion or nationalism.
Those who live in Jerusalem, and all those who love Jerusalem, have this high and difficult call, to be as holy as the city, loved by God. The Love of God, filling human hearts, will help all, Israelis and Palestinians, to reconcile and to live as equals in Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem, aglow with the presence of God” (Is 60:1), “ought to be a city whose gates are always open” (Is 11) with “Peace as magistrate and Justice as government” (Is 17).