Place of Divine Encounter: The Holy See's hopes for Jerusalem

The late John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 came as the culmination of the pope’s two- and-a-half decades of religious peacemaking. The personal importance of the visit for John Paul himself was made clear when, following the closing banquet, the late pope requested an unscheduled visit to the Holy Sepulcher for private prayer. Israeli security agents spent 45 minutes closing down the narrow route through the Old City and reactivating the special vehicle they had constructed to maneuver its uneven streets. Once there, an already impaired Pope John Paul climbed the steep stairs to the Calvary altar unassisted and prayed alone for 45 minutes.



The Achievement of a Failed Dialogue

The most celebrated event of that visit was Pope John Paul’s prayer at the Western (or Wailing) Wall, where like other, mostly Jewish pilgrims, he left a slip of paper with his own prayer in a crack between the stones. Another, less known event, nearly derailed the whole trip. It was an interreligious ceremony organized at the pope’s explicit request and the one sour note in what otherwise appeared to be the sweet melody of the pilgrimage.

Local church officials and the pope’s own nuncio had warned how difficult such a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue would be to bring off, but the pope insisted. To provide musical interludes between the speeches, choirs were invited to sing, but a Muslim choir could not be arranged, so a Muslim boys chorus was hurriedly assembled from the Catholic schools they attended. The grand mufti refused to participate, so President Arafat ordered a lesser judge from the Islamic courts, Sheik Tairseer Tamimi, to speak in his place.

The fireworks began when the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau announced during his address that by his presence the pope had acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over the whole city of Jerusalem. In fact, Vatican policy was that the future of the city should be settled by negotiation in accord with international law. Then Sheik Tamimi arose to speak and delivered a political tirade about driving the infidels from the land and establishing an Islamic state under a new Saladin—Yasir Arafat. The Israeli diplomats seated behind me stood up, shouting in righteous protest. This, I thought, must be what a Friday sermon is like in the militant mosques in Gaza. Then, by pre-arrangement, the sheik left, so as not to be forced to shake the rabbi’s hand.

After the pope spoke, the program called for the three men to plant and water three olive trees. Rabbi Lau stood aside, as the already infirm pope, alone, planted the three trees and, in turn, watered them unassisted. What the pope had dreamed of as a moment of religious unity in the midst of political conflict seemed to have become the very vision of disunity. But the next morning, the Israeli press saw it quite differently. In a region where religious leaders were too often embroiled in politics, they editorialized, the frail Pope John Paul showed by example how a man of God should lead and so be a force for peace.

Six Phases of Policy History

That attempt at interreligious dialogue can serve as an image of the Holy See’s efforts over the last 40 years to shape international policy toward Jerusalem. The principals have often talked past one another; there has been controversy; one side or another has tried to score points, but in the end the Holy See has shown how a city sacred to three religions and two nations might become a symbol of peace for humanity.

John Paul genuinely yearned to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Beginning with his 1984 apostolic letter Redemptionis Anno, in which he voiced his desire to visit Jerusalem, through the Basic Agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization in February 2000, weeks before the trip, his pontificate made significant contributions to the evolution of Vatican policy on the future of Jerusalem. Of the six stages in the development of that policy, four took place under John Paul.

Prior to John Paul’s papacy, the Holy See’s policy fell into two phases: (1) following the U.N. vote for partition of Mandate Palestine in 1947, the Holy See accepted the recommendation of the U.N. Partition Plan, which made Jerusalem a separate political entity (a corpus separatum) under international rule; (2) following the 1967 Israeli capture of East Jerusalem, Pope Paul VI called for a special internationally guaranteed statute to govern the city. In the minds of most people, including many diplomats and most journalists, the qualifier “internationally guaranteed” implied that the Holy See sought an international regime for the city, as envisioned under the earlier U.N. plan, what was frequently called “internationalization” of the city. That was not the case. It meant what it said: a special statute (a treaty) relating to the historic and religious aspects of the city guaranteed by the international community, not just by the country or countries that controlled the territory or access to it.

History had taught that control by one party or another meant exclusion for others. In particular, Jews had been excluded from their holy sites until 1967 by Jordan and afterward many Arabs, including local Palestinian Christians, were later excluded by Israel from Jerusalem.

The development of Vatican policy in the pontificate of Pope John Paul falls into four partially overlapping stages: (1) in 1984 the articulation of the universal religious significance of Jerusalem; (2) from the late 80s through the 90s defense of the rights of all the citizens of the city; (3) in the mid-90s, as final status talks approached, the expansion of the concept of universal interests in Jerusalem, and (4) in 2000, backing for Palestinian aspirations for the city.

City of Divine-Human Encounter

In 1984, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation, Redemptionis Anno, articulating a Catholic theological vision of the Holy Land. Unlike that of evangelicals and particularly of Christian Zionists, Catholic respect for the ties of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and for the memory of the biblical promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants is not decisive in determining the church’s position on the land. Rather, the position of the Holy See has been rooted in international law, which has its own theological warrants in the Catholic tradition, and the requirements of justice for territory claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Prevented under the Lateran Treaty, which established the Vatican City State, from entering explicitly into territorial disputes, the Holy See still reserves the right to comment on the morality of the situation. Hence it has shown a willingness to speak up for both Israeli and Palestinian rights.

The contribution of Redemptionis Anno is that it provides a universalistic religious perspective from which to regard a land sacred to three religions and to two peoples. It is universal in two senses. First, it is sacred to the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions; second, it has significance for the whole human community as a site of humanity’s encounter with God. Thus John Paul wrote of Jerusalem:


Insofar as she is the homeland of the hearts of all the spiritual descendants of Abraham, who hold her very dear, and the place where, according to faith, the created things of earth encounter the infinite transcendence of God, Jerusalem stands out as a symbol of coming together, of union, and of peace for the human family.


The pope went on to stipulate the need “to do everything possible to preserve the unique and sacred character of the city.” He explained this meant “not only the monuments or sacred places but the whole historical Jerusalem and the existence of religious communities, their situation and future....” This last clause hints at two unfolding developments in Vatican policy: insistence on the rights of all in the city, beginning with the living religious communities there, and on a broader concept of what is to be physically preserved and protected.


From Rights of Access to Human and Civil Rights

When governments spoke in the past of rights in Jerusalem, they referred specifically to the right to worship and the right of believers of the three traditions to have “access” to their holy places. As elsewhere in its approach to religious liberty, the Holy See with regard to the Holy Land has come to promote the right to religious liberty broadly understood, rather than simply the freedom to worship. For that reason, for example, the 1993 Fundamental Agreement with Israel stipulated several rights, including rights of the church to its own means of communication, the right to establish educational institutions and operate charitable organizations.

Of course, even to exercise the right to worship in its narrow sense, people must be permitted to gather. In the Holy Land that means worshiping at holy places, like the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Nativity. With growing difficulties over the implementation of the Oslo Accords during the 1990s and the struggle for territory that followed it, the Holy See insisted on the rights of movement of local Palestinian Christians to go to the holy places, access that was often denied because of security concerns. In this connection, the Vatican frequently reminded its interlocutors that the Jerusalem with which it was concerned was not just the holy places but the local communities of people who worshiped there and for whom the holy places were the historic center of religious life. To underscore the same connection, the local Christians spoke of themselves as “living stones,” in contrast to the bare “stones” of the ancient monuments.

But living as a community takes more than religious rights, no matter how broadly conceived. It also requires that members of the community enjoy basic human and civil rights as well. As the implementation of the Oslo Accords stalled mid-decade and tensions grew, Vatican policy emphasized the need for equal rights for all the residents of Jerusalem. It recognized the unequal conditions that had developed since 1967, the growth of Israeli security concerns after the first intifada (uprising) in 1987-93 and the gradual collapse of the Oslo peace agreements from the mid-90s on.

Advocating for Palestinian Christians

This expanded focus on rights also coincided with the efforts of the Holy See to support the Christian communities in the Holy Land, the vast majority of whom were Palestinians. The first intifada had prompted a growth of pride and self-identification on the part of Palestinian Christians. In 1986 Michel Sabbah, a native Palestinian from the Nazareth area, was appointed Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem. Not long after that the three patriarchs and heads of other churches periodically published joint statements on issues that concerned them in the Holy Land. These statements were significant because the various churches were putting aside ancient rivalries, which were often exploited by the authorities, to make common cause on behalf of the faithful of the Holy Land. In 1994 the church leaders published a memorandum on Jerusalem, affirming the rights of all believers dwelling in the city and supporting an internationally guaranteed special statute for Jerusalem. Common backing of the statute placed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Vatican on the same side of the issue of the future status of the city.

In 1996, with a view to the opening of final status talks, the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a special note, titled Jerusalem: Considerations of the Secretariat of State. Along with the customary proposals for the safeguarding and, where necessary, “restoring” of historic and religious aspects of Jerusalem, the memorandum added, “There must be equality of rights and treatment for those belonging to the communities of the three religions found in the city, in the context of the freedom of spiritual, cultural, civic and economic activities.”

Annexation and Human Rights

Tensions also rose over the preservation of historic Jerusalem with respect to annexation and confiscation of Palestinian and Palestinian-Israeli property—confiscations that frequently affected the political geography of Jerusalem. So the Holy See began to speak out directly for broader protections for Jerusalem, embracing its historical, cultural and even ecological heritage.

The last seemed, in part, a response to the sprawl created by the growing ring of settlements surrounding Jerusalem that destroyed the urban-rural nexus, which as late as 1990 still gave one the sense of the biblical landscape. The open land, for example, that once divided Jerusalem and Bethlehem began to be gobbled up with the Har Homa settlement (called Abu Ghoneim by the Palestinians). Lest they suffer more confiscations, the Palestinians then began building to the edge of the area they controlled. As a result, the historic area known as Shepherds’ Fields fell victim to competitive sprawl. Preserving Jerusalem as a common heritage became an increasingly distant hope.

The 1996 statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State took on the issue of annexation and confiscation of land in the most forthright way: “The part of the city militarily occupied in 1967 and subsequently annexed and declared the capital of the state of Israel is occupied territory, and all Israeli measures which exceed the power of a belligerent occupant under international law are therefore null and void.”

Finally, in February 2000, just before Pope John Paul’s pilgrimage, the Holy See signed an agreement with the P.L.O. (for the Palestinian Authority). In most respects the treaty paralleled the one signed seven years before with Israel. It made explicit, however, a common commitment to uphold the “Status Quo,” the Ottoman regulations stipulating how Orthodox, Latins, Armenians and others share the principal holy places. This was especially important to the Greek Orthodox, who feared that the Vatican’s agreements with Israel and the P.L.O. would undermine their historic rights. But the explosive news in the agreement was the preface, particularly its statement on Jerusalem.

Though the preface to the Basic Agreement with the P.L.O. was not legally binding, Vatican backing for Palestinian hopes for the city stirred great anxiety in Israel and in the world Jewish community. Really an application of the principle that Jerusalem is valued by two peoples as well as three faiths, the preface supported “the inalienable national legitimate rights and aspirations” of the Palestinians and rejected “unilateral decisions and actions [by the Israelis] affecting the specific character and status of Jerusalem.” This stirred up a hornet’s nest, because the Palestinians claimed the city they call al Quds for their capital, even as the Israelis solemnly proclaimed Jerusalem their “one, eternal” capital. The pope’s jubilee pilgrimage, however, was imminent, and the controversy soon passed. It will be recalled, if at all, as one of those exercises in competitive victimhood that regularly mark the Israeli-Palestinian rivalry.

Camp David and the Second Intifada

During the Camp David negotiations in the late summer of 2000, the local church took the lead in responding to proposals of negotiators. Just before the talks collapsed, Christian leaders in Jerusalem received word that President Arafat had ceded the Armenian quarter, already a depopulated neighborhood with many Jewish renters and lessees, to the Israelis. The patriarchs and heads of churches in emergency session issued a statement declaring the Armenian Quarter an integral part of Christian Jerusalem. In private communications, Mr. Arafat pulled back and promised in the future he would consult the Christian leaders on issues affecting their interests.

Within hours, however, the Camp David talks collapsed. A few days later Ariel Sharon, guarded by more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers and police, made his visit to the Temple Mount. Young Muslim men rioted in protest, igniting the second or Al-Aqsa intifada. Prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement faded and with them hopes that Jerusalem would be a symbol of peace and interreligious harmony for humanity.

According to an old saying, Vatican policy is formulated in terms of centuries. Sub specie aeternitatis, the Holy See’s policy on Jerusalem, like Pope John Paul’s planting of the three olive trees during the tumultuous interreligious dialogue, continues to represent a standard by which to measure the achievement of tomorrow’s diplomats and religious leaders.


Jerusalem Glossary


Basic Agreement—2000 agreement between the Holy See and the P.L.O. (for the Palestinian Authority) establishing the rights of Catholics and the Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories.

Corpus Separatum —the legal term for a special jurisdiction under international control for Jerusalem and its environs as projected by the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.

Fundamental Agreement—1993 treaty between the Holy See and the State of Israel normalizing the situation of the Catholic Church in Israel and establishing diplomatic relations between the two sovereign bodies.

Har Habayit/Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount—the man-made plateau on the site of the Second Temple, now capped by the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and bordered on the west by the Western Wall.

Holy Places—a phrase that refers to the historic religious sites in the Holy Land, such as the Western Wall for Jews, the Holy Sepulcher for Christians and the Dome of the Rock for Muslims.

Internationally Guaranteed Special Statute—an agreement with an appellant and enforcement authority beyond the signatories.

Old City—the ancient portion of the city surrounded by the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent (16th century), divided into Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters.

Patriarchate—an identification of an episcopal see founded by an apostle, in the case of Jerusalem, Saint James the Less. Jerusalem has three patriarchs: Greek, Latin (Roman Catholic) and Armenian.

Redemptionis Anno —1984 apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II setting out the Catholic position on “the Land” and Jerusalem in particular.

Status Quo—a legal arrangement dating from Ottoman times that establishes the customary rights of the several Christian communities in the holy places.

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11 years 2 months ago
This epic issue of AMERICA I will preserve as a valuable, if not priceless, resource for the range and depth of its coverage of the single most threatening situation our modern world has to deal with, whether it recognizes the threat or continues to fail to, namely, the mindless and de facto Godless and/or G-dless Israeli-Palestinian standoff. I have never finished a more brilliantly or more cautiously nuanced treatment of its subject, or one that left me with my soul more stripped of hope for a peaceful resolution before a thermonuclear holocaust makes all the suicidal pietisms as irrelevant to reality as they are.
Maria Leonard
11 years 2 months ago
Prompted by the photograph of the centuries-old gnarled olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, I'd like to suggest to your readers that there is a practical way they can support the farmers in Palestinian Occupied Territories. Zatoun (the Arabic word for olive) is a registered non-profit organization that sells fair trade olive oil produced by Palestinian farmers. For more information: and


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