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Negotiations over Jerusalem’s holy sites not just for politicians

Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders say they must be involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Vandals wrote “Muhammad is a pig” in Hebrew on the walls of a mosque in the Israeli city of Baqa al-Gharbiya. Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem say that the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations overseen by US Secretary of State John Kerry are destined to fail if they are not consulted.

The status of Jerusalem and the holy sites have always been highly contentious and are considered the most critical final-status hurdles in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Yet religious leaders, who oversee the sites, say they have never been included in discussions during two decades of sporadic peace talks.

The latest round, under way since July, is scheduled to conclude by April. An adviser to the negotiations describes the diplomats involved in the peace talks as “secular yuppies from Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Washington, DC” who are out of touch with the needs of the many Holy Land faith communities. Diplomats have traditionally sidelined religious leaders, but are now warming to the idea of consulting them, he says.

Three diplomats—American, Israel and Palestinian—declined to comment but Yossi Beilin, a senior Israeli negotiator on the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, says that over the years there has been “no formal framework for negotiations with the religious leaders”. However, he says that he has personally had many informal discussions with them.

Officials at the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land—representing chief rabbis, heads of churches and patriarchates, senior imams and officers from the Waqf (a Muslim religious or charitable foundation created by an endowed trust fund) and Sharia courts—say that religious leaders have always felt neglected in the political process. The council has been working quietly in recent years to define its positions on holy sites and formally engage with high-ranking government officials and diplomats.

The organisation has also signed The Universal Code of Conduct at Holy Sites, developed by the conflict resolution organisation Search for Common Ground with other international non governmental organisations. The code outlines principles of shared responsibilities between religious communities and political leaders for safeguarding holy sites, determining access to them, and positive relations between communities.

“I demand that [Christian, Jewish and Muslim] religious leaders be consulted when negotiating,” says Bishop Mounib Younan, the co-founder of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and president of the Lutheran World Federation. “Jerusalem is precious to three religions and two peoples; there are many sensitivities in Jerusalem that politicians do not understand but are for us a matter of life and identity. We are afraid that [even if there is an agreement] peace will not last [without our involvement].”

Holy city

Jerusalem’s Old City is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, according to Christian tradition, Christ was buried and resurrected; several church patriarchates; the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall of the Jewish temple which was destroyed by the Romans in AD70; and the site known as the Temple Mount, holy in Judaism as the site of the Second Temple, and as Haram al-Sharif, holy in Islam as the sanctuary where, according to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended. Hundreds of synagogues, churches, mosques, monasteries, cemeteries and shrines are also inside and beyond the walled city. All of the holy and heritage sites will potentially be affected by final status discussions on borders, residency, freedom of travel, and, of course, sovereignty. Recent decades suggest that what happens at the most revered sites here may also reverberate with Jews, Muslims and Christians worldwide. For example, when Muslims do not have access to Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque and when Christians cannot go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because of Israeli travel restrictions, religious communities are enraged, and religious leaders demand freedom of worship from leaders around the world, says Adnan Hussein, the former Waqf director.

Religious attacks

In the past two years, ongoing political and religious tensions around holy sites have grown amid a string of crimes against them. The Israeli police say that there have been more than 30 “criminal incidents with nationalistic motives” at holy sites in Jerusalem, the West Bank and northern Israel since 2012. According to a Search for Common Ground database of attacks against Holy Land holy sites, through the end of December there have been attacks at 17 Christian sites, 45 Jewish sites and 27 Muslim sites since 2011.

Damage to Jewish sites was typically in-community vandalism and theft at synagogues. The attacks at Muslim and Christian sites were predominantly hate graffiti and damage to churches, monasteries, mosques and cemeteries, thought to have been carried out by fringe Jewish extremists. In December, for example, vandals spray-painted “Muhammad is a pig” in Hebrew on a mosque in North Israel. Due to the improved relations between religious leaders in recent years, more and more of them are denouncing hate crimes against other religious groups and paying solidarity visits to the affected communities.

Religious leaders will continue working to educate local communities against bigotry and towards reconciliation—and to support the political processes, says Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland who, now in Jerusalem, oversees interfaith channels for the American Jewish Committee. “If politicians want a peaceful resolution on the status of Jerusalem, doing so without the relevant religious leaders involved is doomed to failure,” he says. “They must at least get a statement from the religious communities.”

Patriarch Theophilos of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem said in a speech in October that “the unwillingness or failure to take into serious consideration the inherent sensitivities and concerns of various religious communities, both individual and collective…can turn the holy places into a metaphorical volcano that is ready to explode with unpredictable consequences for both the religious and political realms.”

Daniel Seidemann, of the non-governmental organisation Terrestrial Jerusalem, says that the US State Department has always done a good job of briefing Middle East countries about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and should do the same with the Vatican, the Diocese of Canterbury, and other local and international religious communities and their leaders with properties in Jerusalem. “Religious leaders can take the high ground away from the religious fanatics that dominate discourse. This city is becoming a dangerous place; having religious leaders sign the Universal Code of Conduct at Holy Sites is hugely important. I’m confident in this round [of negotiations] they won’t be ignored.”

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