Originally published on Issue 57, March 2018
‘Jerusalem belongs to all three Abrahamic religions and must be free and open to all of them’
Speakers in the academic conference of Jerusalem (al-Quds) History, Theology and International Law which was held in the Islamic Centre of England in London expressed their views about the holy city from historical, theological and legal angles.
In his remarks which were delivered via a video link, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, talked about the importance of Jerusalem for all three Abrahamic religions. He opposed what he called the monopoly of one of these religions over the holy city. He called on the international community to put pressure on Israel to open Jerusalem to all believers and put an end to Israeli injustice. He thanked Iranians for their constant support of Palestine and thanked the Islamic Centre for holding this conference. He said that as a Christian he always admired Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.
Dr Nehad Khenfar, an academic and lecturer in International law, looked at the issue from a legal point of view. He explained the resolutions passed by the Security Council of the UN about the rights of the Palestinian to the city. He argued that based on those resolutions, all legislation passed by the Israeli authorities about Jerusalem are null and illegal. This is because under international law only the inhabitants of Jerusalem have sovereignty over the city, not Israel nor Jordan nor any other state, he explained. He also mentioned the 1998 Rome Statute of International Criminal Law which prohibits the occupier force from moving its population to the occupied territory, which is something that Israel has been doing for many years by building Jewish settlements. Dr Khenfar said that Palestinians now living in countries that have signed and ratified the Rome Statute into their internal legal systems can and should take legal action against Israeli authorities, politicians, military personnel and anybody who ever had a role in forcing out Palestinians from their homes.
He then talked about the ‘conditional’ membership of Israel in the UN and said Israel has violated those conditions and therefore according to the General Assembly’s resolutions, it is not a legitimate state anymore. In concluding Dr Khenfar reiterated that all Israelis who have taken part in changing the status of Jerusalem can be sued under the laws of the International Criminal Court.
Later during the conference, Syed Ali Raza Rizvi, the President of Majlis Ulama Shi‘a in Europe underlined the Islamic Revolution’s global and transnational appeal for justice and its support for all the oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians.
Dr Jon Hoover, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Nottingham, gave a brief lecture on the history of Jerusalem. He said that the ‘Children of Israel’ captured the city around 1000 BC when ‘King David’ conquered the city and his son, ‘King Solomon’ built the first temple. In 578 Babylonians destroyed the city and enslaved its people. He then described the Jews’ return to the city and rebuilding the temple between 520 and 515 BC, which is known as the ‘second temple’. In 70 CE Romans destroyed the city.
Dr Hoover said that for those who have read the New Testament it is interesting how accurately and in details Jesus predicted Jerusalem’s destruction. Dr Hoover said that Emperor Hadrian built another city on its ruins and banned Jews from entering the city which survived for 700 years. In fact, Jews were allowed to enter the city after Muslims took over in 638 AD. In 692 Muslims built the Dome of Rock. Then he explained why Abd al-Malik built the dome. He then continued by describing the fall of the city to Crusaders in 1099 and Salah al-Din recapturing it in 1187 CE. From 1250 to 1517 Mamluks ruled the city and from 1517 to 1917 it was under Ottoman rule. In 1917 during the First World War, the British Army captured Jerusalem. Between 1917 and 1948 it fell under the British mandate, and between 1948 and 1967 it was divided between Israel and Jordan.
Dr Ghada Karmi also talked about Jerusalem from a historical perspective but from her personal experience as a native of Jerusalem. It was not an important city during the Ottoman time apart from being a pilgrimage destination, but in the 19th century when Europeans opened their consulates in Jerusalem and sent their Christian missionaries to convert the locals, the Ottomans began to take notice. She said that it is very difficult to estimate the correct number of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the city firstly because of unclear boundaries and secondly because of the Israeli policy that tends to show Jews are in a majority. She said that in 1928 when Jews began their migration to the holy city, the population of Muslims was about 7000, Christians 5000 and Jews 9000. She said that the number of Jews increased dramatically. This was not by birth but by immigration. As a result in 1944, there were 97000 Jews and 30000 Muslims. The numbers in 2015, if we believe the Israeli numbers she said, are 525,000 Jews, 300,000 Muslims and only 12,000 Christians. It is interesting that the number of Christians is even lower than it was in 1931.
She then talked about her personal experience as a child in Jerusalem. She described the character of the city as Muslim/Christian and said that relations between the two were based on mutual respect. She said that Muslims would go to Christian festivals while Christians would come to Muslim festivals and they would send each other gifts on each group’s religious occasions. She regretted that the city of her childhood does not exist anymore, ‘ethnic cleansing’ has changed the city’s character.
The Reverend Nadim Nassar said that Jerusalem is important for all of us as believers. He expressed regret that no Western Church cares about the plight of Christians living in Jerusalem and their decreasing number. He then talked about the significance of the city from a Christian theological perspective saying it was a shame that we did not have a Jewish rabbi to talk about the theological importance of Jerusalem from a Judaic point of view. He continued, however, by saying that Jesus entered the city when people were expecting a saviour to emerge and become their king. But as he explained, Jesus said that his kingdom is not from this world. He said that when the Lord chose to become ‘one of us’, He chose Jerusalem as His city. Therefore in his view, Jerusalem is the capital city of spirituality. He said that in order to understand Jerusalem it is crucial to understand three cultures. Most people do not know that Christianity began from the Middle East and there are native Christians all over the region. Secondly, he said, we should understand the cultural diversion of the city in the last 50 years. Thirdly and lastly he said, we should understand the culture of God and His decision to choose Jerusalem as His city.
The final speaker of this conference was Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, the director of the Islamic Centre. He began by explaining the global impact of the Islamic Revolution at a time when everyone thought that the age of religions was over. The revolution, he believed, proved that humanity can still live based on religious values. Faith gives courage to the oppressed and a purpose in their lives. He then talked about Imam Khomeini’s care for the oppressed whether they were Iranians or not. He said that from the very beginning the Imam was opposed to both apartheid and occupation. One of the first foreign policy decisions after the revolution was to cut political and economic relations with South Africa, then under apartheid. In Palestine, Shaikh Shomali said there is both apartheid and occupation, and therefore Imam Khomeini did not hesitate to support the Palestinian people.
Dr Shomali then talked about the theological aspects of Jerusalem in Islam and in the Qur’an. First, he mentioned that for all the first 13 years of Islam in Makkah, the Qibla was Jerusalem and the Prophet Muhammad(s) and his companions prayed towards that direction. Only in Madina and after some time, following a revelation from God, did the direction of the Qibla change to Makkah. The second importance of Jerusalem from the Qur’an’s point of view was the Prophet’s ascension to heaven from al-Aqsa Mosque. He talked about the significance of this journey and theological views on why the Prophet was taken on the Me‘raj (Ascension) from Jerusalem and not directly from Makkah. He said that one view would be that Jerusalem and its surroundings, is blessed according to the Qur’an, and this blessing was so significant that the Prophet was to ascend from that place to heaven. He also narrated sayings by Imam Ali(a) about the importance of al-Aqsa mosque as one of the four gardens of Paradise on earth, next to Masjid al-Haram, Masjid al-Nabi and Masjid al-Kufa.
Dr Shomali said that today, unfortunately, not only the inhabitants of the city but the holy city itself has been taken as hostage. He then prayed and wished for the return of Jerusalem to all believers as a holy city, not a political city.
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: