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Al-Azhar Al-Sharif International Conference on Supporting Jerusalem

Address at the opening session by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, in Cairo, 17 January 2018.

17 January 2018

This speech is also available in French, German, Spanish and Arabic (pdf, 300 KB).

Address at the opening session by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary, World Council of Churches

Cairo, 17-18 January 2018

Mr President Abbas, Your Holinesses, Your Eminences, Excellencies, honourable participants,

I thank you, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh al-Tayyib, for the invitation to this important and very timely conference, and to address you all on behalf of the World Council of Churches, a global fellowship of 348 Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches around the world.

The global Christian fellowship that I represent shares with you – as with many others around the world – a profound and abiding love and concern for Jerusalem and for the peoples living there. In the New Testament, we read of how Jesus Christ wept over this city with love and longing. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42)

Following Jesus’ word and example means to speak truth, to seek justice, and to be peacemakers in the world’s conflicts and controversies. The World Council of Churches therefore proclaims and seeks to live out a commitment and contribution to a just peace for Jerusalem. Our prayer is always for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6) – a peace that can only be true and lasting if it is founded on justice.

We include in our membership churches with indigenous Jerusalem Christian communities whose future in their own city is terribly and imminently imperilled by the prevailing circumstances. The Palestinian people live under occupation and with the negative effects of illegal settlements. They also live with unfulfilled intentions of the international community to support a viable and just solution for Jerusalem and for all the people living in the Holy Land.

Jerusalem is regarded as a holy city and loved, genuinely and deeply loved, by all three Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims. That love and profound attachment must be respected and affirmed in any solution that might be envisaged, if it is to be viable. But we must also acknowledge the human tendency to express such a profound love by seeking to possess exclusively, denying or obscuring the love and attachment of others for this place.

Alongside this we must recognize the extraordinarily complex layering of Jerusalem’s history and culture. History shows that the involvement in this region of these three religions has not brought just peace for all. That, unfortunately, is still true today.

The future of Jerusalem must be a shared one. It cannot be the exclusive possession of one faith over against the others, or of one people over against the other. Jerusalem is, and must continue to be, a city of three religions and two peoples.

The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem have repeatedly and strongly affirmed this, saying in 1994:

“The experience of history teaches us that in order for Jerusalem to be a city of peace, no longer lusted after from the outside and thus a bone of contention between warring sides, it cannot belong exclusively to one people or to only one religion...”

In 2006, Jerusalem’s Christian leadership went further:

“Jerusalem, holy city, heritage of humanity, city of two peoples and three religions, has a unique character that distinguishes her from all other cities of the world … two people are the guardians of her sanctity and carry a double responsibility: to organize their lives in the city and to welcome all the ‘pilgrims’ who come from around the world.”

In 1974 the World Council of Churches affirmed strongly that Jerusalem should be “a city open to the adherents of all three religions, where they can meet and live together”, and later went further, saying in 1998 that “Jerusalem must be a shared city in terms of sovereignty and citizenship”.

In this perspective the recent announcement of the President of the United States of America to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is not taking the issue off the table but creating more serious obstacles for just peace. The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem - supported by churches worldwide - warned before the decision in an official statement that “exclusivity over the Holy City will lead to very dark realities”. It has already led to anger and sadness on the one side, and on the other encouraged proposals of even annexing the West Bank as policy.

This situation only makes it even more important and urgent that there are new initiatives to enable just peace for Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is to be the capital for two peoples, living together with equal rights, there must be a political solution with concrete ideas as to how this can happen. And if it is to be a capital for two peoples and two states, both the two states must be defined, recognized and established as real, viable and internationally recognized states within internationally recognized borders.

The 1948 UN plan for Jerusalem as a corpus separatum (separated body) under international law was never realized in practice, and any plan for the city to be formally internationalized now seems unlikely. However, no country can define unilaterally what is international law on this issue. Neither can any external country dictate what the solution should be. It has to happen through negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. This should happen with support from others in the wider international community, and especially from the other countries in the Middle East, who must now take a stronger responsibility together to help find a sustainable solution for a future of just peace for Jerusalem.

Such a vision and solution is long overdue.  It has to be pursued further what the idea of a shared Jerusalem might mean in practice for the lives of the people living there. The prolongation of conflict focused on Jerusalem continues to be a source of tension and conflict in the region and beyond. Rather than postponing the question of Jerusalem to a ‘final status’ stage, it should be considered that if the dispute around Jerusalem can be resolved this may provide impetus and energy to solve other aspects of the conflict.

As believers in one almighty God, we should explore together what it means to express the love of God in this conflict in which the three monotheistic religions and their communities are involved and affected. There will be no peace in Jerusalem unless all three religions are respected and involved in the solution. On the other hand, the situation calls upon all these three communities of faith, locally and internationally, to offer together sincere and practical contributions to the hopes and aspirations for a just peace for Jerusalem.

The time has come for all present here to develop new initiatives that can offer sustainable and lasting peace in the region. We owe this to our children and to the generations who come after.

Let us together be contributors to a just peace, not to a perpetual conflict.