Conference on Jerusalem – Session III: Religion and Holy Sites

Session III: Religion and Holy Sites
Chair: Bishop Michael Doe (BP Executive Committee)
Keynote Speaker: Daniel Seidemann
Panellists: Imam Monawar Hussain, Bishop Christopher Chessun, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

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Bishop Michael Doe:

Good afternoon and welcome back to this Balfour Project Day Conference on Jerusalem: from Past Divisions to a Shared Future?  The Balfour project brings together people of many different faiths and people of no faith, but it’s impossible to talk about Jerusalem without looking at the significance of religion.

That’s the focus of this session, Religion and the Holy sites.   We’ve got a panel representing three of the largest faith communities and I’ll introduce them when we have heard our keynote speaker. Daniel Seidemann moved to Jerusalem in 1973 and has been a member of the Israeli Bar Association since 1987. Since 1991, he has focused on the geopolitics of contemporary Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and he is very well known as the founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. He has led discussions on the future of Jerusalem with Christian communities within the Arab world and with the Jewish diaspora in Europe and in North America. If you heard part of his contribution this morning I’m sure you’re looking forward to what he’s now got to say to us this afternoon. Just one other thing about him, in 2010 the Queen made him an honorary member of the order of the British Empire in recognition of his work in Jerusalem. Danny, thank you for coming back this afternoon, joining us for this session and could you now please give us your keynote introduction on religion and the holy sites.

Daniel Seidemann:

Thank you for your kind words and introduction. It’s a bit odd for me to be speaking to this issue because I’m secular. I’m not an observant Jew.   But if I didn’t have an intimate familiarity with the faith dimension of Jerusalem, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. The idea that I’m going to describe to you was born at a specific moment during the negotiations on camp David, when there were discussions about dividing up the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as if were a wedding cake, horizontally slashing, this would be Jewish, this would be Muslim. It dawned on me, we’re treating Jerusalem as if it’s real estate. Jerusalem is also real estate, but it’s not primarily real estate. The Old CIty of Jerusalem is one kilometer in size and in the limited geographical space, you have the three neutrally incompatible narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s where the tectonic plates of the West and the Arab world and civilisations meet up in this limited space.

It struck me that failure to address the faith dimension of the conflict was a major methodological problem and one that was my problem as well. At about the same time, we began to observe something else, and my good friend, Salim Tamari alluded it. Salim describes to us about the ascendancy of Jerusalem. I would put it differently. Jerusalem is Jerusalem because of God, whether He exists or not. Saying keep religion out of Jerusalem is the equivalent of saying, keep culture out of Florence and finance out of Manhattan comes with the territory. The problem that we encountered was not so much the presence of faith. Faith is what makes Jerusalem. Those religious movements that weaponise religion, weaponise faith. In a Jerusalem context that comes down to very specific things.

These are groups whose claims to the city are absolute, exclusionary, exclusive, at a times, incendiary. I have no problem identifying them. Among Jews, it is the temple mountain movement aspiring to radically change the status quo or the biblically motivated settlers trying to transform Silwan into a renewed biblical kingdom. Among Christians, it’s the end of days: evangelicals for whom Jerusalem is an Armageddon playground. There are various iterations of the brotherhood who denied the legitimacy of Jewish and Christian attachments to the city. These groups became more powerful over the last 20 years and had a greater impact on policy. I found myself saying, wait a second, they’re not becoming more powerful. They’re the power! Because policy today in Washington is driven by the theology of end of days evangelicals. Vice President Pence and Pompeo. Policy in Jerusalem is driven by the biblically motivated settlers in the messianic motivated temple mount movement.

This morphed into something that I call a frenzy of mutual denial, where it’s become socially unacceptable to speak respectfully about the equities of the other. You Jews were never here. You usurpers, there never was a temple or the Muslim sanctification about Acta is a modern construct devised cleverly in order to abuse the Jews. Mike Huckabee, prominent politician and theologian, the Palestine Muslims have no business being here. I would like to show you one of the more benign manifestations of this.  This first slide is a tourist map that is no longer in use. I’m abusing it a bit. We were able to shame the government of Israel into withdrawing this map. It was the map that you would have been given a Jaffa Gate entering the Old CIty, four or five years ago. And it bears the logo of the Israeli ministry of tourism. Like most tourist maps, it’s kitschy. There is a legend to the map on the side, and that legend contains 57 sites. 52 of which are Jewish sites, four of which are Christian sites. There’s one Muslim site, it’s the dome of the rock. And on this official map of Israel, Al-Aqsa mosque does not appear. I’m not using this as an example of current Israeli policy but it is a definite example of the zeitgeist.

To just give you another example from a week or two ago, the Jerusalem municipality put on its website a list of all of the synagogues in Jerusalem. One of the members of the city council said you have to put the churches in and the mosques as well. The response of the municipality was to remove the synagogues because it was more offensive to have the mosques and the churches there than it was important to have the synagogues. If it makes any difference, they were probably upset that there were reformed synagogues to be listed as well. This remains extremely relevant.

This morning I spoke about what I considered to be the marginalisation of the Muslim equities in Jerusalem by the Trump plan.   In the Trump plan, there is a list of Jerusalem’s Holy sites. There are 30 some sites there all told if I’m not mistaken 17 of the sites are Christian sites, 15 are Jewish sites. There is one shared Jewish Muslim site, temple Mount Haram al-Sharif, in that order.  On this next slide I super-imposed Al-Aqsa mosque here because it did not appear. This portends the morphing of a national political conflict with a religious dimension into a zero-sum religious war.  A while back, we decided to try and do something about this. I would like to share that with you. We put together a database of all of the sacred religious and Holy sites and heritage sites in and around the Old CIty of Jerusalem.   On this last slide on, this is what the real Jerusalem looks like. By the way, there are four great denominations, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and secular humanism. The Romans and the Jebusites are represented in our Jerusalem as well.  They’re part of our civilisation.  So we came up with 670 sites.  What we have done is put together a profile.  Where is it? What’s its significance? who owns it? which government protects it? With which other denominations is it associated? On what route of pilgrimage is it located? What days of the year are there special events, a mass for example, or special prayer? What’s its history? Its architecture? What are the secondary sites located inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre? In Haram al-Sharif/ The Temple Mount? There are dozens of secondary sites.

We’re a bunch of secular Jews. So we have taken those profiles and have turned them over to fine Jewish, Muslim, Christian scholars to vet what we’ve written correctly. This is about letting Jerusalem speak in your voice, our voice. We now have pretty much completed that database and the question is, what are we going to do with this? It’s going to be a working tool for decision-makers. It will be eventually an interactive website, which will allow people to access their Jerusalem or the Jerusalem of others.   If I’m a Muslim Pilgrim, show me what my Jerusalem is, or I know nothing about Islamic Jerusalem, show me what Jerusalem is. The most important thing at the moment is an attempt to turn this into a public initiative. Those who weaponise their faith in Jerusalem are not representative of the historic religious establishment in the city. The church is the chief rabbis, the heads of the Sharia courts to Muslim clerics. They know that Jerusalem has to speak in multiple voices. What we are trying to do around this amazing image of Jerusalem, nobody can look at this map and say, we possess Jerusalem only we. We’re trying to articulate the kinds of interactions that are necessary in order to allow Jerusalem to be Jerusalem. Very briefly, no faith and no individual has a monopoly on the sanctity of Jerusalem.

Nobody needs to apologise for his or her attachment to the city of Jerusalem. No attachment, however powerful it is, justifies changing the status quo.   It can only be changed if at all by agreement. Nobody is required to believe in the veracity of somebody else’s faith. I don’t have to believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven or in the resurrection, but I do have to believe that people of faith believe that and to be respectful of it at a time. We all will be custodians of each other’s sanctity. Nobody is entitled to deny or to denigrate the attachment of anybody else. Our scholars, they could write whatever they want on the significance of their Holy site to them, but not comment or denigrate the attachment of somebody else. This final point is probably the most important because these materials are easily abused and they’re being abused now. Jerusalem is not only being threatened by zealotry. It’s being threatened by kitsch. We now have an Abrahamic covenant and Muslims can visit the Al-Aqsa mosque occupation. What occupation? This could be used as a cover. Look how wonderful things are. You have freedom of religion. No. In God’s Jerusalem, no person and no community, national or religious needs struggle to maintain his or her identity or the identity of his or her community, or the integrity of its sacred sites. That is unthinkable. We have been working with some of the residents in Jerusalem, some of the religious leaders, and others abroad. This is an attempt to marginalise the religious pyromaniacs, who are controlling the discourse by offering a faith-based alternative. This is not an interfaith app in the classic sense of the word. This doesn’t deal with making conflicting or different theologies more compatible. It’s the cohabitation of contradictory narratives. For the past decades, including in recent days, faith has been abused and the service of denial and violence, and some of the most horrible crimes of the 20th and 20th first centuries have been done in the name of faith. What we see here is a potential for religion to have a positive impact on the nature of relations in Jerusalem. This is not an alternative to a political process. This will not end occupation, but it will in the absence of a political process, offer the prospect of a modest improvement of mutual respect, something that’s stabilising in Jerusalem and something that we’ve lost. It’s also an example, I think an excellent one in which faith can have a highly positive impact on issues of major geopolitical importance. Thank you.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Danny. Thank you very much, indeed, for that introduction.   One of the people in the Chatbox was asking what you meant by when you said we, and I think you were talking about Terrestrial Jerusalem, is that right?

Daniel Seidemann:

It’s terrestrial Jerusalem.  We have allies in churches. We have shared this in the royal court in Morocco. We have met with local community leaders Palestinian and East Jerusalem, both Christian and Muslim. We are trying to quietly build a coalition so that this will receive the prominence that it deserves.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Let’s now turn to our panelists. Each of whom will speak for about 10 minutes. Jeremy, if I could come to you, first of all.  Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is the Rabbi at New London Synagogue. He spent three years of his life in Jerusalem and he has got family living there at the moment. Jeremy, give us a Jewish perspective if you will, on the city, and what it means for you.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon:

Thank you. Just a moment to be part of this conversation. What I’m going to try and do is unpack a profoundly Jewish, profoundly religious, but non-monopolising sense of Jerusalem. I want to take people on a journey through what Jerusalem has meant through time. I’m actually going to spend quite a bit of time back in the Bible, but where I’m headed to is a place where we can do what I think the Balfour Project is trying to do and do that from a profoundly Jewish place. I’m not a right-winger, I’m not a fundamentalist, but I mean, I agree with Danny that the religious voice is important, but I think often massively misunderstood. I’ve collected a bunch of key texts which are completely important in a Jewish conception.

You can’t argue with this as if it were the book of Genesis. When we talk about Jerusalem as Jews, we tend to begin with this verse in chapter 14 of the book of Genesis with King Melchizedek of Shalem, and you may hear in the word Yerushalayim as we would say it in Hebrew or Jerusalem, that word Shalem or Salem that is in there, a sense of peace. Interestingly enough, this King who is held to come from Jerusalem, he is not Jewish , he’s not a Hebrew, he’s held to be a righteous other and he comes from Shalem. Moving slightly forward in the book of Genesis, this is part of the narrative of the binding of Isaac. Sorry, this is not the binding matter, this a select study before then. Abraham calls a place Adonai Yireh and again, you will hear in the calling of Yireh, the outer part of the word Yireh-Shalem or Yerushalaim or Jeru-Salem. In the rabbinic imagination, the word Jerusalem comes from this combination of the Shalem of this non-Jewish non-Hebrew, other as it were King Melchizedek and this calling of Abraham.

I’ll say a little bit more about that at the end of my time. Here are some verses from the story of the binding of Isaac. It’s such an important story Jewishly, it’s a balance, a grounding of where the Jewish claim comes from. Look, what Abraham was willing and able to do. Therefore, God, you should allow us, and so on. It’s at the heart of the religious claim that Danny talked about. A dangerous religious claim, but certainly one that I think needs to be engaged in. Here there is a question of this Mount Moriah. You may hear in Moriah, you may hear that Ura sound that we were talking about before, and God says, this will be in a place that I will show you.

Rabbinically, and while I’m citing Rashi, I’m talking about the single most important Jewish commentator that exists in the Jewish community. Rashi identifies this land of Moriah as Jerusalem. Why does he identify it because of a verse in the book of Chronicles that says that the house of the Lord, this is the temple, is built in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah. In other words, Mount Moriah, the place of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac is held to be where Jerusalem comes from. Why is Mount Moriah held to be, to do with the temple because in the temple they offered myrrh or mur. So Moriah held rabbinically in the biblical imagination to be the origin of this term. All of this is existing before anybody’s built anything. There is no city, there’s no temple, or this is all kind of pre any of all of that.

By the time we get into the book of Deuteronomy, we get lots of conversations about this very, very important place for the Hebrews. It becomes a very important place for the Jews. We’re called to go there three times a year on the Feast of Passover, on the Feast of Pentecostal Shavuot, and on the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot. That place is the place that God will choose. Later we identify and we look that place in with the geographical area that nowadays, you will see on maps look called Jerusalem.

This is the very first Biblical mention of Jerusalem. You’ll notice of course, that none of the verses that I’ve talked about previously, actually talk about Jerusalem. We’ve had bits of words that need to be portmanteau stuck together to get to Jerusalem. This is the very first mention. It’s in the book of Joshua which occurs after Moses dies and the children of Israel crossed the Jordan river into, as it were the promised land. We come across this city known as Urushalaim. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t belong originally to the Hebrews, to the Israelite nation, to the people that Joshua is leading the people who left Egypt. It belongs to this other King and this other King gets in a negotiation. He’s got a problem with a Gibeonites or another nation who are around and it doesn’t go well for them and that whole area ends up being conquered by Joshua.

It’s just fascinating to me in the context of the very point that Daniel was talking about, which I would completely go along with which is part of the heart of the Balfour Project. It’s not correct that the origin of Jerusalem is Hebrew or Jewish. It’s correct that there is an origin which exists in the kind of roiling interplay of ancient peoples, all kind of like bumping up against one another. What does that mean for the future? What does that mean for where we are today? I’ll get onto that, but I just want to undo biblically a sense that Jerusalem always was, therefore always must be held within the covenant of the people of Abraham.

Joshua dies several generations later, a temple is built and the temple is built in this place and exactly what that place was we think is Jerusalem, but it’s very difficult to kind of work out what’s going on. Archeologically, you’ll get people drawing up images, but when you talk to archeologists and they start trying to explain this stone or that stone or this area or that area, it gets incredibly complicated. It’s very difficult to work out what’s going on because we’re dealing with things that are happening 3000 years ago on top of which layer, after layer, after layer of building and rebuilding is going on. I don’t think you can’t get to, at least I’ve been unable to get to what I would consider real archeology free of the political pools that Danny has been defining,

The temple is built. Rough time of the building of the temple minus a thousand, a thousand BCE is I’m, it’s called it as a Jew before the common error or a thousand BC, for those who are counting things before Christ. It doesn’t go so well and this is the image of Jerusalem that you will find in the great prophetic works of those of us who hold the Hebrew Bible is important. Jeremiah here, just before the destruction of the first temple in minus 356 BCE, talking about going out and looking around the streets of Jerusalem or finding nobody of any use whatsoever. Then after the destruction of the first temple, you start to get verses like this appearing in biblical books like Songs, Ecclesiastes, these great kind of poetic images. Wasn’t it extraordinary? Wasn’t Jerusalem astounding?

This fascinatingly, this is a verse which is always sung at Jewish weddings. At a wedding at a time of great joy of great happiness, this verse will be sung if I forget the old Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let’s my tongue stick to my palate if I  cease to think of you, which is to say that even after the destruction of the first temple, let alone the second temple, even after the destruction of the temple in minus 356 Jerusalem lives in the sort of religious imagination, incredibly importantly, and you get people kind of hungering and lusting after Jerusalem and yearning towards Jerusalem and seeking to return. Perhaps the best example of that comes in the 12th century. Yehudah Halevi is possibly the greatest poet and philosophical poet of the Jewish people and an incredibly important character.

He decides to make a pilgrimage. He decides he wants to go to Israel to die in this land that he believed was his. This is a poem that he wrote in 1140 just before he set sail on his way to Jerusalem. Your bride, he’s talking about himself, is coming to meet you. He’s talking about Jerusalem, longing heartsick since the day she was first barred from visiting your sanctuary. That’s a reference to the destruction on the first temple. Each time of pilgrimage, Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost. She gazes, shamefacedly at the strangers who have made the journey. There’s the reference to 1140, Christians, Muslims. 1140 precisely as a time of Christian control of Jerusalem with obviously that’s moving backwards and forwards during the Crusader period, who’ve made the journey where she’s not, she stands far off in all her places of exile. He’s writing from Spain.  Sending prayers towards Israel instead of sacrifices.

He feels that pull and he decides he’s going to travel to the land of Israel. I’m going to have to skip a couple of things just to move on to a much more recent poets and Pilgrim and a person who felt a great tug towards Jerusalem. He’s expressing these ideas religiously, but Yehuda Amichai is like Danny, a secular Jew. There’s a nationalist connection to the land of Israel.  Yehuda Amichai was born Ludwig Pfeuffer moved to Jerusalem as a child, but the name that he chose for himself when he arrived in Israel, “Yehuda” means Jew and “Amichai” means my people live. So you can feel that pull. Listen, how he talks about Yerushalaim. Just one other point about your Yerushalaim, words that end -aim in Hebrew are words that come in pairs.

Yerushalaim, sounds like a paired word. He says, why is Jerusalem always in twos, one above, one below. I want to live in Jerusalem of the middle without turning my head above and without wounding my heads below. Why is Jerusalem in the language of paths like hands and legs only want to be in one Jerusalem because I am one and there is no more. What he’s talking about is a religious imagination of a city that cannot be. He acknowledges the city of his imagination that cannot be. There isn’t the imagination of Jews, of beautiful, a perfect, of peaceful and a Jerusalem, which has no pull one way on the other way. Then there is the lived reality, actually Daniel’s organisation, its very name as a reference to this idea which exists in the town, but I haven’t got time to do it. Just to reground this idea that there is a Jerusalem, which is held in a kind of attention.

In fact, much of the joy of Jersualem for me, is the creative ambiguity of the pools of how Jerusalem is constructed religiously as well as, as a lift political reality has Danny, just explained so beautifully. You can see it in this, for me, incredibly important, key religious texts, religious texts from the full fifth century of the common era and it’s an absolutely core religious text. Says this, Abraham called this place Yireh, we saw before and Melchizedek called this place Shalem , he’s identified as coming from Shalem. So what does God say? God says, if I call Yireh as Abraham called it, then Shem, who was a righteous man is non-Jew, this non-Hebrew will become angry, but if I call it Shalem, Abraham, who was a righteous man will be angry.

Instead, I call it Yerushalayim and it shall be called together, Yireh Shalem, Yerushalayim. You just need to like fold into that, is that patterns. Here it’s God calling them.. This isn’t some human being decided I’m pulling it this way, and I’m pulling it this way. It’s as it were a rabbinic imagination where God takes this pull city and honors the pulls by having its very name itself, be partly a pulling one direction, partly pulling another and together a sense of plurality that we don’t hear enough so religious Jews say loudly enough. It is an absolutely as it were Kosher positions what I hold and it’s part of what draws me to this panel today. Thank you.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Jeremy, thank you very much for that and for the feeling behind it. Our next panelist is Imam Monawar Hussain, who is the Muslim Tutor at Eton College, Muslim chaplain to the Oxford University Hospitals Foundation Trust and Founder of the Oxford Foundation, which promotes religious and racial harmony, particularly amongst young people. In 2017 Monawar was made an MBE in recognition of his interfaith work. So welcome to you and we look forward to your contribution.

We seem to be having some technical problems there. Monawar, can you hear me? If not, we’ll go to Bishop Christopher, if we may? Who is our third and final panelist. Christopher has been the Anglican Bishop of Suffolk since 2011. He’s a member of the House of Lords where he’s currently the Lead Bishop for International Affairs. He’s a Trustee of the Balfour Project and also a member of the Holy Land Coordination established by the Vatican. Christopher over to you.

Bishop Christopher Chessun:

Thank you very much, Bishop Michael. This year, I made two visits to Jerusalem before the lockdown in January, as an Anglican participant in the Vatican mandated coordination of Catholic bishops, which engages relationally with Christian communities in the Holy land. Of course, they are a small minority of the much greater population. Then early March leading an ecumenical pilgrimage. I realised I’m preparing for today that I spend more time in Jerusalem than in any other city in England, other than London. To talk about Christianity and Jerusalem, I want to focus on place people and pilgrimage. To understand how the Christian imagination about Jerusalem has been shaped. It is helpful to think about something like the Mappa Mundi, that great example of medieval cartography from the 13th century now in the custody of Hereford Cathedral, Jerusalem is located in the center, at the center of the world.

This was not just a description of how to move from one place to another. It was about identity mindset and understanding. It is not an 800-year-old SATNAV. It is a description of what matters, and it’s place in the cosmos. It tells us not only about physical features and in pictorial form something about them, but of their relative significance. So while England is positioned somewhere off the Northwest at the edge of the known world, much as we are determined to be again, Jerusalem can only be at the center. The rest of the map is drawn around the centrifugal fact, however inconvenient that is for topography. This is not principally a statement about size, commercial, or military importance such as it might’ve been for Paris, Frankfurt, Constantinople, Cordoba, or Baghdad in that day. It is rather a statement about God’s plan for the world He has made. The Mapper Mundi depicts the Holy Sepulchre, the church of the resurrection at Jerusalem, and as such gives the beholder a worldview, a worldview shared by whole peoples about redemptive history.

The vast majority of which would never see or visit Jerusalem, but they knew with utter certainty of belief, it was central to their own story. So Jerusalem and people often referred to by Christians as the living stones, among the very stones and the land where the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian faiths emerged, not called the Holy land for nothing. When the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena arrived in Palestine in 326 seeking to identify the Holy sites associated with the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. She commissioned what amounted to the first-ever archeological digs. It is to this activity that we owe the sites of the Church of the Nativity, and the church of the Holy Sepulchre preeminently. In order to identify where to dig, it was to the local Christians she turned and to what had been handed down already through a number of generations.

And who were they? They were among the numbered, new convert, certainly but principally, they were descendants of the earliest Christians who have preserved a tradition of where the gospel events happened. Those Holy sites have been both a source of pilgrimage, as well as the religious and political concern ever since. Words alone will not do justice to the part they have played and continue to play in the Christian story. That they remained places of living worship and witness, especially for that indigenous communities is key. The leaders of the churches in Jerusalem cooperate together ecumenically particularly in the advocacy for the Christian Holy sites, and can rely on the solidarity of Christians and the churches worldwide. Of course, in much, much larger numbers and sometimes there’s much greater political clout. Again, some Christians are recent arrivals, but many other descendants of those who were there in Helena’s time. Descended from Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, Arabs, and Syrians from the time of antiquity and preserving the languages of the ancient world in their literatures Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Amharic, Greek, and the Latin rights.

They are indigenous populations and the churches of the now largely secularised West are derivative of the apostolic mission sent out from Jerusalem, not to mention Antioch where the term Christian was first used and not the other way round as sometimes is mistakenly thought. So Jerusalem and pilgrimage to the place where the central redemptive facts of the Christian place took place, amongst the descendants of those first Christians has been the practice of centuries. The first person to give an account of pilgrimage is Egeria, a woman who made her pilgrimage later in the fourth century and the 380’s we have been coming back ever since.  It is the place we act out the redemptive drama that wrought out salvation. I’m using “we” here because I was asked to speak from a Christian perspective.

 It was a much of the ancient part of the city, still is a walled city.   The walls were built for defense, but they also contain communities of the Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian quarters all held within. I know I’m stating the obvious to many people, much more learned and knowledgeable about Jerusalem, than me, but this is a telling fact. I am one of those who believes that it is the destiny of the Holy City to be the point of reconciliation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  So I was interested in the description of those tectonic plates and irreconcilable narratives, perhaps.  Pope John Paul II wrote this, “Jews ardently loved Jerusalem and in every age venerate her memory abundance as she is in remains of monuments from the time of David who chose her as a capital and Solomon who built the temple there, they turned their minds to her daily and point to her as the sign of the nation. Christians honor her with the religious, and intent concern because there the words of Christ so often resounded.   There the great events of redemption were accomplished, the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. In the city of Jerusalem, the first Christian community sprung up and remained throughout the centuries, a continually clears your presence despite difficulties.

Muslim, Pope John II continues, also call Jerusalem Holy with a profound attachment that goes back to the origins of Islam and springs from the fact that there have been many special places of pilgrimage. For more than a thousand years have dropped there almost without interruption. Sadly, the context of our conference today is that the present reality and Jerusalem is one of conflict. Among Israeli citizens, there are claims of discrimination by those who are non-Jews. For the residents of East Jerusalem, it is a tale of encroaching settlements, restrictions on movement, restrictions on bringing in spouses and families if not an Israeli citizen. The churches, especially the Greek Orthodox Church, have been involved in significant disputes over property title, and ownership in recent years. The proximity of the separation barrier and what that represents, not simply in terms of security, but also restricting the Palestinian population and separating off the West Bank is acutely obvious.

For Palestinian Christians, on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier, the restrictions on movement and access to the Holy sites in Jerusalem are acutely felt at the major festivals. Jerusalem has in recent decades, been the place of tension, protest, and even violence. As a settled decision of the state of Israel has not been the settled decision of Jerusalem’s residents or the neighboring population. In sticking justice for all we must embrace wide that division of a city whose destiny is to be the point of reconciliation, not a source of contention. So in conclusion, the image of Jerusalem continues to inspire. A portentous moment to recall the gathering, I know, but when General Allenby entered Jerusalem on the 11th of December, 1917, he did so via the Jaffa Gate on foot, out of respect for all the Jerusalem men. When Clement Atlee sought to capture a post-war future for Britain, which was full of hope and possibility, his vision was a secular one, but he chose Blake’s imagery of a new Jerusalem for peace, justice, and human flourishing in this country.

The same phrasing has even been picked up by the present conservative prime minister for our future hope as a nation. Yet for Christians, Jerusalem is a potent symbol of hope for the future pointing toward the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 21, according to the writer of the Hebrews in Chapter 13, Verse 14 “For here, we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” For Christians, worldwide, Jerusalem is a symbol of the hope to come, not a contest to be one. Still less a battle to be fought.  For Jerusalemite Christians, there remain hard realities. Hence our conference today, and why organisations like the Balfour Project concentrate minds on these hard realities. Thank you.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Monawar, we lost you for a while, but I think you’re back with us now. We will hope that you stay with us and we look forward now to your contribution.

Imam Monawar Hussain:

Thank you. Peace be upon you all. It’s a real pleasure to be with you and thank you very much for inviting me. The primary sources of Islam are the Qur’an, which for Muslims is literally the word of God, and the Hadith , which contains the sayings and actions, that is the lived example of the prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him. I will employ both primary sources to explore the significance of Jerusalem in Islam. The Quran, as the word of God, is inexhaustible. Muslims have therefore engaged deeply with the divine word throughout that history and have produced a huge Corpus of commentaries, linguistic, traditional, rational, mystical, and scientific. Some focus just on one methodology, others, a combination of these methodologies to articulate the depth of meaning in each word or verse of the Quran.  An important study entitled “Jerusalem in the Quran” argues that there are some 70 direct or indirect references to Jerusalem in the Quran and these are scattered throughout 21 chapters. I noticed because often the Quran alludes to a point and the elucidation comes through the prophetic Hadith or the Corpus of Commentaries, or both.

This point is articulated by a writer from the eighth century. In relation to Jerusalem, he states “With almighty God says, but we delivered him, Abraham and his nephew Lot and directed them to the land, which we have blessed for all beings.” he means Jerusalem. When he says “And we made a covenant with you on the right side of Mount Sinai,” he means Jerusalem. When he says “And we made the son of Mary and his mother a sign, we gave them both shelter and high ground affording, rest and security and furnished with water Springs.” It is Jerusalem. When he says “Glory to God who did take his servant for a nocturnal journey from the sacred mosque to the father’s mosque.” It is Jerusalem. When he says ”In houses, which God has permitted to be raised and his name to be commemorated therein,  there in glorifying him in the mornings and the evenings … It means the sacred house, that is Jerusalem. Jerusalem also as Al Quds or Haram al-Sharif is inextricably intertwined with Islamic tradition. Al Kaylani has articulated the outlook that permeates Muslim religious consciousness in relation to Jerusalem in the following words. There has been a general background of intimations shared by all Muslims. This background has comprised part of that religious consciousness, leading them all to yearn for Jerusalem and seek closeness to it so as to derive blessings from its Holy sites. This is why the companions of the prophet, the successors, and other pious Muslims, and indeed the Muslim rank and file as well have come one after the other to visit Jerusalem.  A writer from the 13th century has provided a graphic illustration of the place Jerusalem occupies in Muslim religious consciousness.    The meaning of glorify Your Holy name is that we purify ourselves for you. Hence comes the name Beit Al Makdis that is the purified home through which people purified themselves of their sins.

Jerusalem is one of the three most holiest of sites within Islam. The other two being in Mecca and Medina. It is also home to one of the only two mosques named at the Quran that is Masjid Al-Aqsa, and the other being a Masjid-e-Haram in Mecca. The verse explicitly mentions that two, also captures a momentous moment in the life of the prophet that is corporeal, night journey accompanied by Gabriel, transport him via the white heavenly steed from Mecca Jerusalem. The Quran states, “glorified be he who took his slave for a journey by night from Al Masjid-e-Haram to Al Masjid Al-Aqsa, the neighborhood whereof, we have blessed, that we might show him if our signs. Lo, He, only He is a hero and the seer.

On the journey from Mecca, Gabriel invited the prophet to dismount and pray at certain places. These sacred places were Mount Sinai, the birthplace of Jesus, upon him be peace, in Bethlehem, and then the grave of Moses, upon him be peace, which the prophet describes was a stone’s throw from the sacred land below the red sand hill. In Islamic doctrine, the fact that the prophet prayed at certain places is understood to denote the blessedness of places associated with the prophet’s and by extension the saints. Muslims, therefore consider all such places, where, are and shall until the day of resurrection remain Holy in Islam. What struck me early this year, during this study tour of the Holy Land, organised by St. George’s College, Jerusalem was the shared experience between Christians, Jews, and Muslims of the blessedness of the Holy sites we visited.

As the last of the Abrahamic faiths, each place we visited had deep Holy resonance to me, as a Muslim.  With reference to the verse I quoted above the Quaranic commentators have interpreted “neighborhood which has been blessed” as meaning the entire land that is historical Syria. It appears in the Hadith that God has made the land from the ash that is a divine throne to the river Euphrates. Out of this, he has bestowed particular holiness on the land of Philistine or Palestine. The blessedness and the Quranic verses interpreted as referring to religious and worldly blessings. As for religious blessings, it has been the Qibla. That is the direction of prayer of all past prophets and their home and the last resting place. The Dome of the Rock is a sacred place from which the prophet ascended to the heavens.

It is during this night that the five daily prayers were made obligatory on the nascent Muslim community. Jerusalem was that first qibla. That is their first direction of prayer. It is the second mosque built on earth some 40 years after the Kaaba in Mecca. The prophet said there is no journeying except to three mosques, Al-Masjid e-Haram in Mecca, the mosque of Al-Aqsa  in Jerusalem, and my mosque in Medina. As a result of this, it was the custom of many pilgrims on the Hajj to visit Jerusalem at the conclusion of the Hajj. In another tradition, the prophet encouraged pilgrims in the Hajj to begin their journey from Jerusalem. He said he who begins Hajj al Umra from the Al-Aqsa mosque to the Mecca mosque will be forgiven his previous sins. For some, the beginning and the end of the blessed Hajj journey was Jerusalem.

Another prophetic tradition states, whoever dies in Jerusalem, it is as though he’s died in the heavens. Not unrelated to this virtue of Jerusalem was the Quranic commentator’s interpretation the verse ‘“And listen on the day when the caller calls out for a place that is near” chapter 50 verse 41. As referring to the final trumpet blast by the archangel Israfil or Seraphiel, when he calls out from a place that is near to the heaven, this is the rock of the Holy house at Jerusalem. The place on earth, that is the nearest to the happening. As a consequence, some solely traveled to Jerusalem to live, pray, and die there. There are numerous individuals, some towering figures within Islamic history, ordinary folk of whom history is silent, all love Jerusalem for its blessedness. Spending their lives in prayer, meditation, and in the hope that they might be buried in that Holy land.

Now it’s the subtitle of the conference, suggests a vision of a shared future in the Holy land. I’d like to conclude with my personal experience, on my visit to Jerusalem early this year. I had the most spiritually uplifting time of my life in Jerusalem. I had the honor of attending a Sabbath service at a synagogue, followed by our group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims being hosted by a local Jewish family who opened up their hearts and home to us. It was the most moving experience. Likewise, the experience of Arab hospitality was equaled, reminding me of the stories of Abraham’s hospitality that I’d grown up with. The feeling of praying and spending time in the al-Haram al-Sharif, the noble century left an enduring sense of deep peace and tranquility within me. My abiding memory though will be of praying together at the tomb of prophet David, with a young Jewish man. 

Having had a negative experience in Hadron, I was a little hesitant when I arrived at the tomb with David. However, the young man noticing that, looked at me and made a gesture as if to say come closer. So there we were complete strangers, united in our love for prophet David. Praying in our own ways, in our own languages and reciting our Holy scriptures, offering our prayers and moving on. As we moved away, the young Jewish man asked, where I was from, I said Britania. We shook hands and went our ways. It is time to channel that love, that love we embody as Muslims, Christians, Jews. for the Holy land into a transformative love. A love that honors the other, a love that heals and reconciles, and a love that recognises the sacredness of our common humanity. That is what will lead to peace in this land. Thank you very much.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Thank you very much for giving us that perspective and also that message at the end. We have some few minutes for some discussion between those of you on the panel.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon:

I’m honored to be here, thank you Bishop Christopher and Imam Manowar, thank you for sharing so honestly, and movingly about a kind of a shared vision. I’ve been keeping an eye on the chatbox and one of the questions, that one of the themes of the chat is yes, fine to have such kind of nice expressions express. What does it mean politically? A question from someone with an Arabic sounding name, so where should the next temple be built? So, what should be the answer to this? Perhaps a military atrocity or terrorist atrocity, or I wonder Imam, I wonder Bishop, how do we join the link between our kind of our shared religious perspectives and the very, very difficult political job that needs to happen of putting lines down in reality? I don’t know if either of you have a thought on that.

Imam Monawar Hussain:

On my own personal view would be that people need to actually talk to each other. There have to be space where people meet each other, speak with each other, and recognise that we all have the same aspirations. We all have the same aspirations for ourselves, for our families, for our children and to build a future together. I think when people are not talking to each other, there is great room for ignorance of the other, there’s great room for all kinds of stereotyping someone. Just people initially meeting each other, it doesn’t have to be that religion. It could be about anything but just meet each other. I mean, one of the wonderful things is sports,  just an opportunity for young people to meet each other, playing sports, but just to recognise each other’s humanity, I think that has to be a starting point.

Bishop Christopher Chessun:

I agree. I think that’s certainly part it, Imam Monawar and Rabbi Jeremy. I too have been keeping a look at the chatbox and the comment about learning from our history, because I think as well as the talk and as well as the dreaming and the visions that we have that inspire us all from our different faith, traditions and perspectives. Learning from the history is very telling, especially as the person who put that down, linked it to what makes them for peaceful solutions and coexistence. It seems that there is an imperative that we should be seeking peaceful solutions and coexistence. I’m not sure I am competent to make political statements about what would work politically, although I remain committed to it, I realise I’m doing this from a detached position and I was very struck by Avi Shlaim at the beginning. By his wisdom and experience, I remain committed to the two state solution because that does preserve some of the balances, some of the differences and would protect the legal identities of the two constituent peoples.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon:

There are two things that struck me. I agreed with Imam about speaking to one another. I wonder if there’s something that seeing one another, the great, Jewish philosopher, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has talked about, but when you see someone like it impacts upon you. I wonder the implication for that Jewish gentlemen, Imam that you were talking about, meeting in the tomb of David, seeing like a devout, a serious, and a peace-loving, an open-souled Muslim person praying next to him. I think those kinds of things are incredibly important. I understand why security forces make decisions to erect walls and barriers, but it is heartbreaking. When I was living in Jerusalem, I would get up in the morning, go to where I was studying,  go to the shops, go back and this, that, and the other, and the only Muslims that I would see were doing menial labour, the cleaners, some of the people in the shops.

I had to physically go out and make an effort to go into East Jerusalem, to encounter Muslim people. I think that we need to see one another. I think we also need to train ourselves that peace doesn’t always, I don’t know, I think we have the wrong word with peace. I don’t know what to do with it, peace suggests to me everybody bouncing happily on some beautiful island free of any concerns, and it’s not going to be like that in Jerusalem. Instead, it’s going to be about coming to terms with polarities and ambiguities and accepting no monopolistic control. We need to work out how to suffer one another, tolerate one another in love. I wonder if that’s a better goal.

Bishop Christopher Chessun:

I agree with you. I think that peace can become a very idealised linguistic term, which is why, I tend wherever I can to combine it with peace, not and justice but peace with justice. And then there’s a commitment to think about the justice for all. Without which there cannot be peace other than idealised a conceptual concept.

Daniel Seidemann

If I may weigh-in. I want to speak on behalf of the city because the interactions that I see on the ground are very different from coexistence. One of the most illuminating places for me in Jerusalem is the fourth station of the cross, which is at the beginning of El Wad street. It’s illuminating because you stand there for 15 minutes and you will see Christian pilgrims bearing the cross, along the Via Dolorosa, you’ll see Jewish worshipers going from Mea Sharim to the Western wall and Muslim worshipers, and then you’ll have the border patrol.

It is difficult for me to describe on one hand the visceral hatred that you find in the interactions between Jews and Muslims on the Temple Mount Haram al-Sharif. There will be blood. You were on a trajectory of radicalisation. We don’t have a monopoly. Go to the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre and look at the relations between the Copts and the Ethiopians and there are times when Orthodox and Latins…. which is why I at least speak of the cohabitation of incompatible narratives. I say this with deep regret. I only found out about this a few years ago. I’m sure the Imam is going to get a chuckle out of this. At the end of Ramadan, there were half a million worshipers around Haram al-Sharif.  It’s amazing. Do you think any of my Israeli neighbors are aware of it? We lead separate lives and when our lives intersect, these are not the lives of coexistence as it is understood in the West. That’s why it’s imperative. I only know of one photograph which actually I can think of in which you have all of the heads of churches, the Muslim Emirs and the two chief rabbis appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It was their getting together to protest the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. That’s what coexistence looks in Jerusalem. I say it with regret. I am not capitulating to this. I think that Jerusalem has more hidden veins and arteries that connect people than meets the eye. I can tell you that one of a dear friend. One of the most senior Christian clerics in Jerusalem, somebody you know, who has told me, I periodically meet with this very senior rabbi but I’m not allowed to reveal it to anybody. I’m not doing this to rain on your parade. I share what you are looking for. I seek the possibilities but I don’t want us to forget just what a tough town Jerusalem is. It’s a really tough town.

Imam Monawar Hussain:

I think if I can just be a bit more hopeful. My experience really was a very positive one. When I’d been told that it would be very difficult at the airport and so on, and I had no issues going in and coming out. It was just recognising that there are good people everywhere, and it’s just finding them and building alliances and working with them. If you think about it, what’s the future otherwise. The future doesn’t look so bright. If two people are not talking to each other, there’s antagonism. That’s when I talk about reconciliation and actually some form of healing. It looks as if, it’s very bleak right now, but all it takes is a few leaders. There are some who are working very hard for peace and for people to meet each other and to build relationships of trust. I think, you’re an inspiration yourself Danny and there are many people like you.

Daniel Seidemann:

May have a short intervention here. In 1948, I stand a lot on top of the Mount of Olives overlooking the mountain. I stood there in 1948, there would have been 31,000 Christians in Jerusalem that would be at roughly 20% of the population. Today, there are on the order of 12,000, 13,000, less than 2% of the population. The Christian communities are not being targeted by bad Zionists or by Islamists. The Christian community is being crushed by this conflict. I look at that with deep, deep, deep concern. Christianity is not going to disappear in some, of course not, but there is this threat that a can turn into a museum piece rather than a community living and testifying, drawing its roots back to the time of Jesus as testimony to the life and death of Jesus. I’m saying this because I think that there is a direct correlation between our discussion this morning on occupation and our discussion on the possibility of coexistence in Jerusalem among the religions. The two are intimately related. Occupation among else is violating the sanctity of the Holy land and violating the sanctity of its communities. Jerusalem will really begin to heal and I also mean in its faith dimension when occupation ends, which means that ending occupation is also a religious imperative.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Thank you. In the couple of minutes left, I want to raise another issue and I’ve noticed one or two comments in this direction in the chatbox. It’s a large issue and I’m probably going to put it to Christopher. I apologise for this. One of the important aspects of the moment, not least in terms of American politics and indeed the presidential election is the role that Christian conservatives are playing from there around these issues could you do just a quick comment on that, please.

Bishop Christopher Chessun:

It’s a real issue because of alliances support funding global tectonic movements. It’s a real issue in the American election and Bishop Michael Curry the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America has I think summarised it brilliantly by saying that we should judge these actions by one simple question. Do they look like love of neighbor? If they do, then there is ground for a degree of dialogue, if they don’t, we should vote and judge accordingly.

Bishop Michael Doe:

What about just in a few seconds, Christian Zionism?

Bishop Christopher Chessun:

Christian Zionism has been a very significant part of the story, especially in Jerusalem going back into the 19th century when churches that were missions from Jerusalem originally were returning to Jerusalem. Although Christian Zionism of course has its focus on Jerusalem, I did not see that as mainstream for the main churches.

Bishop Michael Doe:

Thank you. Friends, we must wind up this session. First, let me say thank you very much to all four of you for taking part. I think that we have shared a great deal of affection from our different traditions for this city. We’ve talked both about our hopes based on what we believe about peace with justice, but also recognised – thank you, Danny – some of the realities of what we’ve done in the past and indeed the realities that do need to be faced head-on at the present. Thank you very much for helping us to look at those things a little bit better this afternoon.

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