Views of CCJR Members

Holy Land tensions and Christian resolutions

From The Tablet

Sacred sites shared by more than one religious group can often be a source of conflict, sadly nowhere more so than that most holy city, Jerusalem. But a recent rapprochement in the Christian community could also signal a way forward for Jews and Muslims


The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, located in a plaza covering just under 150,000 square metres, is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. It stands on the grounds of the destroyed biblical temples and alongside the al-Aqsa mosque, “the farthest mosque”. The term “al-Aqsa” is often used to refer to the entire area.

For Muslims, the significance of this site derives from the Qur’anic account of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey to heaven, which started here. The al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and today the site is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the religious trust responsible for the buildings as well as prayers.

Although funded by the kingdom of Jordan, the Waqf mainly employs Palestinians. The Waqf Ministry of Jordan controlled al-Aqsa from 1948 to 1967, but after the Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Old City of Jerusalem, and transferred control to an Islamic Waqf trust. This is independent of the Israeli government. However, Israeli Security Forces are now permitted to patrol and conduct searches within the perimeter. Ownership is a contentious issue: Israel claims sovereignty over the whole area but the Hashemite royal family remains a custodian of the site. It is a complicated picture.

For Jews, the sanctity of the site derives from it being the place where – according to tradition – God created the first human, Adam, where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and where the biblical temples where built. This is why it is called the Temple Mount. Its outer Western Wall, “kotel” in Hebrew, originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Temple, is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray today.

Tension has been increasing for years. There is no quicker path to a major conflagration in Israel than an argument about the holy site. One issue today is that religious Zionist (as well as secular) authorities are encouraging Jews to visit the Temple Mount (despite ultra-Orthodox opposition), aggravating the sense among Palestinian Muslims that a precious religious site and symbol of their nationhood is under threat. Al-Aqsa can easily be depicted as the “last stand” in a city that is otherwise “lost”.

Perhaps Jerusalem’s Jewish and Muslim leaders could draw lessons from the recent warming in relations between the Christian communities in the Holy Land. Until a few years ago, they were extremely tense, and dependent upon the so-called “Status Quo”, protocols established by the Ottomans in the mid-eighteenth century to regulate the interminable arguments between the different Christian churches that shared the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, about how it should be maintained and repaired.

Quarrels had become so intense that in 1757 the Sultan imposed a law allowing no one to change the structure, furnishings and decoration of the complex of buildings on the site traditionally believed to be the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Another Ottoman decree in 1852 extended the Status Quo to an agreed set of rules governing the sacred places in the Holy Land shared by different religious groups.

There are hardly any surviving written records but these centuries-old Ottoman decrees still apply. With the arrival of the British in 1917, the Status Quo was applied to other holy places, notably the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount, and remains in place today. For example, in 2015, after a wave of violence, and following a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed that “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims will visit it”.

The Islamic Waqf claims that the Israeli police no longer maintain the ban and express fears of losing control. The potential for conflict is therefore great – demonstrated in 2000 when Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon and a Likud party delegation, surrounded by hundreds of Israeli riot police, visited the Temple Mount. Whether this caused the Second Intifada, or was only a contributing factor in an already incendiary situation, is still debated. What is clear is that violence and loss of life followed his visit.

Earlier this year, I happened to be drinking coffee with one of the Waqf administrators and saw at first hand how quickly protests develop. At the time, a building known as the Bab al-Rahma, near the Golden Gate, was reopened. The Israeli courts had ordered its closure in 2003 for 16 years, alleging that the radical Islamist group, Hamas, had been using it. The police tried to prevent the reopening and protests soon enveloped the area.

On this occasion, violence abated within a few days and the Waqf and the Jordanians suggested the building be closed for extensive renovations, which would lower tensions for the duration of the work. Israel agreed but argued that the structure should be briefly closed before reconstruction, to assert its sovereignty. By the time I had returned to Cambridge a short time later, talks had collapsed amid acrimony, all sides claiming the other was breaking the agreement.

The Status Quo raises questions about freedom of religion in a febrile environment as well as the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance between contesting parties. Among the prerequisites for the successful management of holy sites are: free access for all; a commitment to the exclusively peaceful use of the site by custodians and visitors; a commitment to the protection and preservation of the buildings and contents; and the non-appropriation of the site by any collection of individuals or a state. Recognition of the right of others to spaces they regard as holy is fundamental to the understanding of the perspectives of others.

Jewish and Muslim authorities might do well to look at the way relations between different Christian communities in the Holy Land have been transformed, especially among the six churches sharing responsibility for the running of the Church of Holy Sepulchre: principally, the Greek Orthodox, the Latins (Roman Catholics) and the Armenian Church, together with the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Copts and the Abyssinians.

The Ottomans had enforced the Status Quo so rigorously that attempts to undertake repairs of the building were prohibited, even though age, climate and the wear and tear of pilgrims were putting the structure at risk. Eventually, in the final decades of the twentieth century, agreements were reached to enable restoration.

One consequence, a Catholic priest, Fr Albert Rock, said, was that “previously the communities had very little contact with one another, even when rubbing shoulders every day inside the church. Now the representatives of the communities regard each other as personal friends. We may have different views, but we stay on friendly terms”. The collaboration continued and in 2016 the Edicule (the site of the cave where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead) was restored. Earlier this year, it was agreed to continue restoration, this time on the pavement and foundations around the tomb.

While plurality and diversity are under threat from all sides, the way the guardians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have learned to work together has been a lesson in how religious leaders can transcend narrow self-interest. They have shown their Jewish and Muslim neighbours how a spirit of compromise can lead to effective territorial, political, economic and religious management of a sacred site key to peaceful Israel-Palestinian coexistence.

Edward Kessler is Founder Director of the Woolf Institute and writes widely on Judaism and Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.