The announcement yesterday (Wednesday) by US President Donald Trump that the United States will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been criticised by church leaders. With both Israelis and the Palestinians claiming Jerusalem as their capital, the international community has, until yesterday, refused to recognise Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, insisting that its final status must be settled as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Yesterday, President Trump issued a proclamation, stating that: “The foreign policy of the United States is grounded in principled realism, which begins with an honest acknowledgment of plain facts. With respect to the State of Israel, that requires officially recognising Jerusalem as its capital and relocating the United States Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem as soon as practicable.”
In a move he described as a “long overdue recognition of reality”, he said that he would enact a US law, the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed by the Senate in 1995. The Act urged the US to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. But the law never came into force because successive US Presidents signed waivers delaying its implementation.
President Trump described his move as being “in the best interests of both the United States and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” And he denied that the move wold harm the moribund peace process, insisting that his actions “do not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. The United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.
“Above all, our greatest hope is for peace, including through a two-state solution, if agreed to by both sides. Peace is never beyond the grasp of those who are willing to reach for it. In the meantime, the United States continues to support the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including at the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al Sharif. Jerusalem is today – and must remain – a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
In the 20th century, control of Jerusalem passed from the Ottomans to the British. A 1947 UN partition plan envisaged the creation of two new countries: a Jewish State and a Palestinian State, with a special international status given to Jerusalem. But the creation of the State of Israel in 1947 was followed immediately by the Arab-Israeli was which saw western Jerusalem controlled by Israel and East Jerusalem – which includes the Old City and some of the city’s holiest sites – controlled by Jordan. This continued until the Six-Day War in 1967 which saw Israel take control of the whole city – the first time the whole of Jerusalem came under Jewish control since the Roman massacre and destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70.
Most Israeli government institutions, including the Parliament (Knesset), Presidency, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s Office and government departments are all in Jerusalem. The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority are currently located in Ramallah, a Palestinian-controlled city near to Jerusalem. The international diplomatic community responsible for relations with Israel – and all international embassies – are located in Tel Aviv. Some countries maintain consulates in East Jerusalem, which is responsible for their relationships with the Palestinian Authority.
The US-based Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations said that the move reverses more than 50 years of US foreign policy. “This decision could have profound ramifications on the peace process and the future of a two-state solution, and it could have a negative impact throughout the region and with key US allies,” they said in a statement. “The Episcopal Church Office is joining with Churches for Middle East Peace and many other organizations in opposing any effort to move the embassy.”
The stance taken in the statement echoes a resolution of the Churches 1985 General Convention, which expressed “its opposition to the movement of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, except within the context of a broad resolution of Middle East problems, with the status of Jerusalem having been determined by negotiation and not by unilateral action by any one community, religion, race or nation.”
The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, joined an ecumenical group of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in a statement issued shortly before the President’s Speech. “We are fully aware and appreciative of how you are dedicating special attention to the status of Jerusalem in these days.” they said.
The statement, signed by 13 Church leaders, continued: “Our land is called to be a land of peace. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world. Unfortunately, though, our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy city, is today a land of conflict.
Those who love Jerusalem have every will to work and make it a land and a city of peace, life and dignity for all its inhabitants. The prayers of all believers in it – the three religions and two peoples who belong to this city – rise to God and ask for peace, as the Psalmist says: ‘Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!’ (80.14). Inspire our leaders, and fill their minds and hearts with justice and peace.”
They said that they had been following reports of President Trumps planned moves “with concern”, adding: “We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division. We ask from you Mr. President to help us all walk towards more love and a definitive peace, which cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all.
“Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognising the present international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm. We are confident that, with strong support from our friends, Israelis and Palestinians can work towards negotiating a sustainable and just peace, benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfil its destiny. 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.
“Christmas is upon us soon. It is a feast of peace. The Angels have sung in our sky: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to the people of good will. In this coming Christmas, we plea for Jerusalem not to be deprived from peace, we ask you Mr. President to help us listen to the song of the angels. As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the peoples of this unique and Holy City.”
The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, spoke of his “grave concern” over the move, saying: “Such a step breaks with the longstanding international consensus, and almost seven decades of established American policy, that the status of Jerusalem remains to be settled.
“It also pre-empts a negotiated resolution of this most difficult issue in any final peace agreement, which must be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
“The United States must play a pivotal role in encouraging and supporting constructive negotiations between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, if the moribund peace process is to be revived. But the imposition of this decision on the status of Jerusalem will only lead to more disillusionment, increased tensions, and diminished hopes.”
In a Tweet, the Archbishop of Canterbury echoed the Psalmist in calling on people to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” He said: “The status quo of the City of Jerusalem is one of the few stable elements of hope for peace and reconciliation for Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Holy Lands.”