A hundred years after the Balfour Declaration

Is Christianity doomed in Jerusalem? Frank Gelli reflects on the Balfour Declaration

I hate the name of that street. I can’t bear being anywhere near it!’ Afif, a Palestinian Christian businessman, told me. He has good reasons. Balfour Street, in the West Jerusalem area of Talbieh, is named after Lord James Balfour, Foreign Secretary and author of the inglorious 1917 Declaration, a policy statement by the British Government pledging ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. Many of the current woes of the Palestinian people go back to that very name: Balfour.

In a book entitled ‘Divided Jerusalem – the Struggle for the Holy City’, Professor Bernard Wasserstein, a worthy Jewish-American academic, has documented the melancholy decadence of Christian Jerusalem after Balfour. Towards the end of Ottoman rule Christians were more numerous than Muslims in the Holy City. (12.900 Christians to 12.000 Muslims.) By the time the British pulled out in 1948 and the State of Israel was created, the Christian presence had dramatically fallen. Today they are barely two percent of the Arab population, including the West Bank. Even most of the shops selling religious souvenirs to pilgrims in the Jerusalem Christian quarter are no longer in Christian ownership. On a visit there former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey worried that ancient Christian sites in Palestine like Bethlehem and Jerusalem may soon become a kind of Disneyland, mere theme parks, with hardly any Christians inhabiting them. A grim but real prospect.

The Holy City, sacred to the three great monotheistic faiths, is, of course, a place of tremendous symbolism. The seat of King David, the theatre of Jesus Christ’s ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to Heaven and also the prefiguration of the New Jerusalem, emblem of man’s final, transfigured destiny, as the Book of Revelation indicates. An uplifting emblem of divine salvation history. Could there be a city on earth more superb?

In fact, when Jesus walked the earth he had some pretty harsh things to say about the Holy City. St Matthew’s Gospel reports him crying out: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and those who are sent to her! How often I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’ This was the last of seven apocalyptic warnings Jesus pronounced against the religious hypocrites of his time, the wicked people who masqueraded as pious while plotting against the Messiah to destroy him. Significantly, one of the murdered prophets was Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, whose last words were not forgiveness: ‘May the Lord see and avenge.’

Apart from demographic decline, one serious weakness besetting the Christian Churches in Jerusalem is their disunity. Broadly speaking, there are four main categories: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Monophysite. However, this classification does not tell the full story. For example, the Orthodox comprises both Greek and Russian Churches, not at all in agreement with each other. (Their parishes are composed of the predominantly Arab-speaking faithful.)  Further, the Russians owe allegiance to different Patriarchates. The Monophysites consist of Churches like Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopians and Syrians – all heirs to a tradition that rejected the ancient Council of Chalcedon’s dogma regarding the nature of Christ. Catholics can also be distinguished between those of Latin liturgical rite and others, like the Maronites, but they all recognise the Pope as their supreme leader. As for Protestants, there is a proliferation of sects. The Anglican Church has a Cathedral in Jerusalem but its actual presence is insignificant. Christians are a colourful, diverse mosaic but, in reality, with dwindling numbers and decreasing influence over the destiny of the city. The best they can hope for, Wasserstein opines, is ‘shared crumbs at the table’. If Balfour was alive today, I wonder whether he would be happy about that.

To be fair, when the Balfour Declaration was issued not all members of the British government were in favour. Even Edwin Montague, a Jew, opposed it. He thought Zionism was a mischievous project, bound to stir up anti-Semitism. Lord Curzon, perhaps the most well-travelled and erudite statesman Britain ever had, was highly sceptical. Thanks to him a clause was inserted in the Declaration, stating that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ A far-sighted concern, sadly ignored and betrayed by subsequent events. Both Balfour and Curzon were Christians but it was the latter who correctly predicted the dire results of the declaration for Christians, as well as Muslims.

By 1939, on the eve of WWII, the British authorities apparently had second thoughts: ‘His Majesty’s Government… now declares unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state.’ Another shameful example of Anglo-Saxon duplicity, based on a quibble between the word ‘state’ and ‘national home’, as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. As if that linguistic subterfuge would make any practical difference to the dismal fate of the ‘non-Jewish’ inhabitants of Palestine!

‘O sweet and blessed country, shall I ever see they face?  O sweet and blessed country, shall I ever win they grace?’ asks that wonderful hymn, Jerusalem the Golden. Only God can decide that. Shall earthly Jerusalem ever know true peace? Shall its inhabitants ever know true justice? That is up to righteous men and women of all faiths – and possessed of an indomitable, God-shaped goodwill.

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