‘Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blessed, beneath your contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed…Oh sweet and blessed country, the home of God’s elect’ run the verses of a famous Christian hymn. They allude to the glorious hope expressed in the Book of Revelation, the Bible’s last, a vision of the New Jerusalem, a world purified of evil and reconciled with God. The reference to ‘a voice oppressed’, however, suggests how far we still are from that hope being realised.
Jerusalem is sacred to the three chief monotheistic religions but, historically speaking, the city first appears in Egyptian inscriptions as Urushalim – the city of the god Shalim. It rose to greater fame after King David conquered it from its inhabitants, the Jebusites. The Babylonians subsequently sacked it and exiled David’s people, until Cyrus, the great Persian ruler, allowed them to return. For four centuries after that Jerusalem was the site of God’s Temple, the capital city and focus of Hebrew fervour and nationalism. For some, it still is.
In the New Testament, Jesus does not limit his public ministry to Jerusalem. Three Gospel writers concentrate the Messiah’s activity in Northern areas of ancient Palestine, like Galilee. Yet, the Evangelists devote half their narratives to the final journey Christ made to the city of David. Alas, the Jewish authorities refused to hear his message, arrested, tried him and condemned him to death. Jesus was crucified, died and, after three days, was resurrected in Jerusalem. From there the faith he embodied spread to the ends of the earth. Ever since, Christians have gone joyfully on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem – known as al-Quds – is important and sacred to Muslims because it is associated with previous prophets and especially with the Prophet Muhammad. In Sura Bani Isra-il, the Qur’an refers elliptically to two key episodes in the life of the Messenger, the famous isra’ and mi’raj – the Night Journey and the Ascension. One night the Prophet was carried miraculously from Mecca to Jerusalem and then from there to Heaven. For Muslims, this miracle crystallises their spiritual link with Jerusalem. It is significant that Jerusalem was the first qiblah, the initial direction for Muslims to face while saying their prayers until God’s command came to pray towards Mecca. That does not mean however that the change affects the key importance of Jerusalem for Islam. Muslims regard Jerusalem as their third most sacred city, after Mecca and Medina.
It is clear from the foregoing that Jerusalem constitutes a connection between the three main universal faiths. Ideally, that should be not as a warring bone of contention and strife but as a shared symbol of peace, tolerance and friendship. It is in that spirit that the Vatican after WWII backed the United Nations plan to make the city a ‘Corpus separatum’, a separate body or unit. Owing to the extraordinary importance of its holy places, Jerusalem was to be ruled by no particular country but placed under an international, neutral regime. The plan was actually adopted by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly. The Arabs, after some reluctance, supported the ‘Corpus Separatum’ but the Zionists rejected it. After the 1948 proclamation of the State of Israel, the plan lost any hope of implementation. In 1980 the Israelis provocatively passed a law unilaterally declaring Jerusalem as the ‘complete and united capital of Israel’.
A journalist friend of mine once wrote from Jerusalem that: ‘Here the religious folks appear to get along all right. I have just heard a siren’s blast telling the start of the Jewish Sabbath. At the same time, I heard the adhan, the Islamic calls to prayers resounding from the many mosques. And there are churches… It seems all very peaceful and unthreatening.’ Weeks later the same journalist told me that the Arab intifada had started. The occupied territories rose up in revolt. He saw Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets and beating up young and old Palestinian demonstrators alike. ‘Farewell to peace, or what I took to be peace’, he lamented. Things have not improved since then.
In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini established al-Quds Day in solidarity with the Palestinians. He called upon Muslims all over the world to dedicate the last Friday in the holy month of Ramadan and demonstrate in support of the legitimate rights of Palestinian people. Al-Quds Day was partly in answer to Israel’s proclamation in 1968 of Jerusalem Day, now kept as a national holiday, to assert its supremacy over the Arab people. Many Muslims do mark al-Quds Day with fervour.
St Matthew’s Gospel reports Jesus’ bitter and sobering words over the Holy City: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the Prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!’ And he went to exclaim: ‘Behold your house is forsaken and desolate.’ That was an awesome prophecy, foretelling the sinful city’s destruction by the Romans many years afterwards, in AD 70. Christians like the poet Dante saw it as divine punishment for its leaders having rejected and killed the Anointed of God.
What lies ahead? It is difficult to be optimistic about a fair deal over Jerusalem and Palestine, given the arrogant intransigence of the Netanyahu government and Israeli public opinion. The international community does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but that is not enough. Palestinians continue to suffer. A blissful redeemed New Jerusalem seems an impossible ideal. Why does God allow it? That is the question righteous persons often ask. The only answer is faith.