The Holy City of Jerusalem

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Jerusalem is not so much a small territory in the Judean hills as it is a symbol and a value, not just for the seven million people in Israel and the four million people in Palestine, but for Jews, Christians and Muslims all over the world — nearly half the human race.

It is a city sacred to Jews, who honor the site of Solomon’s Temple that enshrined the Ark of the Covenant. It is a city sacred to Christians as it is the place of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. It is a city sacred to Muslims, as it is where Muhammad had his great mystical experience, riding up to the highest heavens.

From the earliest days of the church, Christians have called Jerusalem the “Holy City,” or Haghia Polis in Greek. This title spells out the problem of Jerusalem — the inseparability of the spiritual and political. Polis, the Greek word for city, is the root of our English words “politics,” “politicians” and “political.” More often than not, politicians think they can deal with the challenges of Jerusalem merely in political terms, as though its spiritual aspect was merely historic with little modern significance. This has created misunderstandings and loss of life and property for generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Following World War II, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, which had been governed by Great Britain under a mandate from the old League of Nations. The General Assembly in November 1947 decided to divide Mandate Palestine into three parts: a Jewish state, an Arab state and a separate political entity, a corpus separatum, the city of Jerusalem.

A detailed section of the partition resolution explained that because of its cultural, historical and spiritual significance, Jerusalem should be placed directly under the United Nations as an international city. The plan called for a “Trusteeship Council” to appoint a governor who would establish working relationships with the Jewish and Arab states to “foster cooperation among all the inhabitants of the city” and to “encourage and support the peaceful development of the mutual relations between the two Palestinian peoples [i.e., Jews and Arabs] throughout the Holy Land.” Such a resolution was never implemented.

The Holy See maintains that the status of Jerusalem involves more than just considerations of territory and politics. The spiritual patrimony and religious identity of Jerusalem must be safeguarded and the city accorded special status. Direct international governance of Jerusalem may not be practical, but there must be at least an internationally guaranteed statute ensuring the special character of the Holy City, for much the same reasons that prompted the 1947 U.N. plan.

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