JERUSALEM — Christian leaders both within and outside the Holy Land fear that President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his vow to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city could destabilize the region.
Trump made his Dec. 6 announcement despite pleas from religious and national leaders not to disturb the precarious religious and political status quo in the city, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Earlier that day, Pope Francis urged Trump not to increase tensions in the holy city.
“I pray to the Lord that [Jerusalem’s] identity is preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the whole world,” the Pope said, “and that wisdom and prudence prevail to prevent new elements of tension from being added to a global context already convulsed by so many cruel conflicts.”
The Vatican also addressed the matter in a Dec. 10 press communiqué that stated, “In expressing sorrow at the clashes that have claimed victims in recent days, the Holy Father renews his appeal to the wisdom and prudence of all and raises fervent prayers that the leaders of the nations, in this moment of particular gravity, undertake to avert a new spiral of violence, responding with words and deeds to the yearning for peace, justice and security of the populations of that tormented land.”
The statement also said that the Holy See “reiterates its well-known position regarding the singular character of the Holy City and the indispensability of respect for the status quo, in accordance with the deliberations of the international community and the repeated requests of the hierarchies of the Churches and of the Christian communities of the Holy Land.”
The Catholic Church and most other Christian denominations continue to endorse the United Nations’ vision of Jerusalem as an international city, under the sovereignty of no country. The facts on the ground have never reflected this, however.
In 1948, after it was attacked by Arab armies, Israel asserted its control over West Jerusalem. Jordan asserted control over East Jerusalem and prohibited Jews from praying at its holy sites, including the Western Wall.
When, in 1967, Israel won the Six-Day War, it extended its control over East Jerusalem and eventually annexed it. The Palestinians, however, claim the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.
Trump is the first American president to declare that the embassy will indeed be moved to Jerusalem, despite the fact that Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. That act recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and only a presidential waiver can suspend the move. Yet every president since 1995 — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has kept the embassy in Tel Aviv out of fears the relocation would spur Arab violence. Every six months they applied the waiver to circumvent the embassy move.
In his speech, Trump called the planned relocation of the U.S. embassy “a long overdue step to advance the peace process” and the fulfillment of the Embassy Act.
The president emphasized that Jews, Christians and Muslims all have deep religious and historical ties to the city.
“Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Trump declared.
He called on all parties to “maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites,” including the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient Jewish Temple that Jesus visited.
Trump said his announcement was “not a departure” from the government’s “strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace.”
“We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved,” Trump said.
Despite these reassurances, the Holy Land’s Christian patriarchs and other leaders in the region expressed concern that Trump’s words will lead to “increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”
“Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem,” the leaders declared in a Dec. 6 joint statement. “Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm.”
The leaders said they are “confident” that, with the right international support, “Israelis and Palestinians can work toward negotiating a sustainable and just piece benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfill its destiny.”
Local Christians’ Concerns
Holy Land Christians have a large stake in Jerusalem’s status, spiritually and logistically. Thousands of Catholic and Orthodox Christians live and work in both East and West Jerusalem, and their communities maintain hundreds of institutions, including churches, schools, shops and guesthouses here.
In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Christians and Arabs live side by side, so when there are clashes between Palestinians and Israelis — like the ones that have taken place since Trump’s speech — their safety and livelihoods are affected.
Tens of thousands of Christians have emigrated from the Holy Land during the past century, many to escape the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, just 2% of Israelis and Palestinians are Christians.
Pope Tawadros II, who heads Egypt’s Coptic Church, was so angered by Trump’s speech that he canceled a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Cairo scheduled for next week.
Trump’s decision “did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people,” the Coptic Church said in a statement explaining why the meeting with Pence has been canceled.
In contrast, some other Christian leaders welcomed Trump’s declaration.
“We wholeheartedly welcome today’s courageous landmark decision by the United States to finally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” said Jürgen Bühler, president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist movement. “This is a long overdue step, which goes to the core of the historic national identity of the Jewish people.”
‘The City of Our Identity’
Father David Neuhaus, a professor of Scripture and former head of Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, said the Holy Land Christians who remain feel a deep sense of purpose to maintain the churches and keep the cradle of Christianity alive.
“The Church was born here in Jerusalem. Jesus was raised here and crucified here. He gave his Holy Spirit to the Church, and from here the Church spread. In a very real sense, more than Rome or Moscow or any other city, Jerusalem is the city of our identity as Christians.”
But Father Neuhaus said local Christians don’t believe Trump’s promise that the delicate religious status quo will not be harmed in any way.
“There are communities of human beings living around the holy places,” he noted.
“What will be the human cost of these words? We know his words will inflame tensions. There will be outbreaks of violence and attempts to quash the violence. It’s a very real concern for anyone who sees human life as important.”
Father Neuhaus said the final status of Jerusalem must be part of a final agreement between the parties and cannot be based on unilateral decisions by the U.S. government or anyone else.
“For the Church,” Trump’s announcement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital “is problematic. Jerusalem is the capital of three religions. It’s as if the carpet was pulled out out from under the feet of international law.”
Father Neuhaus said that it is imperative to recognize the rights of Jews, Muslims and Christians to call the city home.
“We cannot deny that the ancient Jewish Temple was an integral part of the city of Jerusalem,” he said, apparently alluding to Muslim claims that Jews have no historical or religious ties to Jerusalem and especially the Temple Mount, where the ancient temples once stood. “But it is not acceptable to overvalue one religion and undervalue others.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.