By Elise Harris
Christians leaders in Jerusalem have voiced fear over the repercussions of America’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, asking that international law be respected in the interest of maintaining peace.
According to Fr. David Neuhaus, a priest in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and former Parochial Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the city, the first reaction to the decision was fear.
“You touch Jerusalem, things explode,” he said, explaining that for people on the ground, there are three primary concerns over the move, the first of which is “how many people are going to die? … To what extent is there going to be violence and loss of life?”
Speaking to CNA over the phone from Jerusalem, he said on a second level, there is also concern over the fact that the U.S. has strayed from a position that has been a widely accepted in international law, and to which the Holy See has also “very, very strenuously and strictly” stuck.
“The Holy See has remained very strictly within that discourse, and the kind of upset that it causes now to think that one of the strongest countries in the world doesn’t seem willing to stay within a discourse that we have been using and that has been very useful in trying to find a solution to the problem of Jerusalem,” is concerning, Neuhaus said.
A third immediate concern, which the Church itself has taken a particular interest in, is over the character of Jerusalem itself, he said, explaining that to drag the city into a contentions political debate “is endangering the character of the city as a holy city.”
There is real concern not just for the preservation of the holy sites in Jerusalem – which holds special religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims – but also for the people who visit them, the priest said.
The people, he said, “always kind of vanish from this kind of politicized discourse, because we talk about protecting stones, and our fear is yes, you can wonderfully keep a museum, but there aren’t people there anymore.”
“If violence breaks out, pilgrimages will stop and pilgrims will be in danger because when countries take positions like this, which seem to be positions that exclude someone else, yes the people are in danger,” he said, adding that this concern is also just as valid for the people who live in the city.
Jerusalem is a place where certain groups of people “feel more and more alienated” and excluded, and who feel “that one narrative is being preferred over other narratives, one religious tradition is triumphing over others,” he said, so in this sense, the Trump decision could alter the character of the city itself.
While right-wing Israelis have been celebrating the decision, likening it to the 1917 Balfour declaration announcing British support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people,” for Palistinians, both Christian and Muslim, “there is despair.”
In general, Neuhaus said the feeling is that the move betrays what had previously been decided by the international community, who recognized the “special status” of Jerusalem and tried to protect it from becoming the center of conflict.
However, rather than doing this, the Trump administration’s announcement “is very clearly putting Jerusalem right in the middle,” the priest said, adding that there is also confusion over what this will mean in the long run.
Trump never said what Jerusalem is, so in terms of a two-state solution, which has been supported by the U.N. and the wider international community, “what are these two states?”
Neuhaus said the “bravado” with which Trump made the announcement was “kind of spitting in the face of the rest of the world, which is saying this might not be the most prudent thing to do.”
“This kind of discourse does not prevent division it provokes division,” he said, and while they are hoping for the best, the future is unclear.
Many Israelis, he said, are asking themselves the question: “is Israel going to have to pay a price for this American gift? … Is this part of something bigger that we can’t see right now?”
“These things will become clear in the months to come,” he said, but noted that “something has changed, and that change is not going to be for the good.”
Neuhaus’ concerns echoed those of the patriarchs and heads of Churches and ecclesial communities in Jerusalem.
On Dec. 6, 13 of these leaders signed an open letter to Trump saying they have followed the news of his decision “with concern.”
“Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world,” however, unfortunately, “our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy city, is today a land of conflict.”
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they said, will only lead to “increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us father from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”
Peace in the area “cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all,” the signatories said, and urged the United States “to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem.”
“Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm,” they said, and voiced their confidence that with adequate support, both Israelis and Palestinians “can work towards negotiating a sustainable and just peace” that is beneficial for all sides.
“The Holy City can be shared and fully enjoyed once a political process helps liberate the hearts of all people that live within it from the conditions of conflict and destructiveness that they are experiencing,” they said, and asked that as Christmas approaches, Trump would join them in their quest to build “a just, inclusive peace for all the peoples of this unique and Holy City.”
The 13 signatories of the letter included six Catholic officials, as well as representatives of Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism.
Israel has traditionally recognized Jerusalem as its capital. However, Palestinians claim East Jerusalem for the capital of the Palestinian state. In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the U.S. is the first country to do so since the state was established in 1948. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel after is victory in the Six Day War of 1967.
Debate on this particular issue has in many ways been the crux of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which is backed by Arab leaders and the wider Islamic world.
According to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, the final status of Jerusalem is to be discussed in the late stages of peace talks. Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has never been recognized by the international community, and all countries with diplomatic relations have their embassies in Tel Aviv. However, under Trump’s new plan, the U.S. embassy is to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, then, is likely to increase tension, particularly in regards to the 200,000-some settlements Israel has built in East Jerusalem, which are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this stance.
After news of the decision broke, Pope Francis during his general audience also voiced “deep concern” over the move, and issued a “heartfelt appeal” to the international community to ensure that “everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations.”
More than 30 Palestinians have been injured in clashes across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amid protests against Trump’s decision.
The position of the U.N. on the Jerusalem issue is that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory, and that the city should eventually become the capital of the two states of Israel and Palestine.
The Vatican has long supported a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and on a diplomatic level recognizes and refers to both “the State of Israel” and “the State of Palestine.”