"In what the church leaders say is an attempt to ensure such free access, they seem to reflect the views of the Vatican, ......."
[also see REJECTS CHURCHES' CALL
December 31, 1994
UNKIND XMAS GIFT
A new report by the capital's Christian communities seems to challenge the status of Jerusalem, writes Haim Shapiro
JEWS aren't in the habit of receiving Christmas presents. So it is perhaps understandable that the statement on the status of Jerusalem presented to the government by the heads of the Christian communities left Israeli officials with a distinct sense of disquiet.
The statement says that
"Jerusalem is too precious to be dependent solely on municipal or national political authorities whoever they may be."
Since both the municipal and the national authorities are Israeli, this sentence sounds like a direct challenge to Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. No wonder Israeli officials were concerned.
Although Israeli government officials have chosen not to comment on the statement, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert described it as ''a strange combination of prejudices and distorted perceptions."
Olmert was apparently referring to the statement's implicit comparison of the Jews to the Crusaders - a frequently heard anti-Israel charge:
"Jerusalem..... witnessed throughout its history the successive advent of numerous new peoples..... Most often the newcomers were gradually integrated into the local population..... But when the newcomers tried to claim exclusive possession of the city and the land or refused to integrate themselves, then the others rejected them."
Aside from the ancient Jewish claim on the Holy City, such a view ignores the fact that the Jews have been the largest religious community in Jerusalem since the 1830s and an absolute majority in the city since the 1860s.
However, it is not the historical or theological elements which are most disturbing, but rather the political call for a
"special judicial and political statute for Jerusalem which reflects the universal importance of the city."
The statement goes on to voice barely veiled criticism of Israel.
"Experience shows that such local authorities for political reasons or the claims of security sometimes are required to violate the rights of free access to the Holy Places."
This isn't the first time church leaders in Jerusalem have charged that Israeli security precautions restrict freedom of access to the holy places even when the Israeli authorities have made special arrangements for Christians from the territories to come to religious ceremonies in Jerusalem.
In an interview last week, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah was quoted as saying that
"Jerusalem..... is still closed to Christians, Moslems, to all inhabitants of the occupied territories."
In what the church leaders say is an attempt to ensure such free access, they seem to reflect the views of the Vatican, with a call for international guarantees.
The statute on Jerusalem which the Christian leaders demand,
"should also be guaranteed by the international community" the statement says.
IRONICALLY, it is Israel's agreement with the Vatican - culminating in the exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the Holy See earlier this year - which led to the formulation of the statement. In the light of the formal agreement between Israel and the Catholic Church, the other historic churches began to feel uneasy about their own position vis-a-vis the Jewish state.
The other factor that has caused a feeling of uncertainty among the churches is the peace process with the Palestinians, especially as the issue of Jerusalem has been left as the last item in the negotiations.
The feeling of Christian insecurity may be seen in the regular visits by the heads of the churches to Yasser Arafat in Gaza, and by the fact that Christian leaders are unwilling to make public any infringement of their rights by Moslems. Indeed, one often has the feeling that Christians criticize Israel to appease the Palestinians.
Olmert said that there was no questioning the unique historic position of Jerusalem for all the monotheistic religions, and he promised that the status of the city would be preserved, as would freedom of access to Jerusalem's holy places.
"However, the way to maintain this situation is not, as the heads of the churches suggest, through the implementation of an international guarantee. Historical experience has shown that in every case of international intervention, the opposite of security is achieved. This situation is liable to repeat itself in Jerusalem as well," Olmert said.
Officially, although the statement was presented to Israeli and Jordanian officials, as well as to a representative of the Palestinian Authority, it was not made public. In practice, it has enjoyed wide circulation in Christian circles, including such bodies as the US Council of Bishops and the Middle East Council of Churches.
So far, Israeli officials, with the exception of Olmert, have accepted the nominally non-public nature of the statement and refrained from making any public response. However, in view of the fact that the declaration is bound to receive wider publicity, it behooves them not to leave this challenge unanswered.
The writer is a member of The Jerusalem Post editorial staff