The Church
and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Church and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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The Pope’s bold visit to Iraq prompts recollections of my attempts, over the years, to encourage European Christians to play a larger role in the effort to break the political deadlock of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to abandon the illusion that only the United States can do so.  The Pope was unafraid to journey to Iraq, located in the heart of the Arab world, a country that in the 21st century has endured savage warfare, invasion by foreign powers, the ruthless terrorism of ISIS, and violent clashes between Shi’ite Muslims and Sunnis; a country in constant tension with its fanatical neighbor Iran, and with its own Kurdish minority as well. If, despite all this, the Pope was undeterred and arrived with his entourage to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to the Iraqis, while also empowering the Christian minority who live in a delicate balance within an overwhelmingly Muslim state, there is no reason why he and his advisers cannot take the initiative to plan an additional trip to the Middle East, a visit focused on a single place, Jerusalem – not all of Jerusalem but the Old City, inside the walls, and the immediate vicinity, known as the Holy Basin.

Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall ©Francesco Cito

The Israeli-Palestinian question is one of the longest and most stubborn conflicts since the First World War, despite the many attempts by powerful forces to resolve it. The numerous reasons for the impasse are beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to note that as opposed to territorial conflicts elsewhere, this one involves the entire territory and not just a part of it. In addition to the maximalist territorialism of both sides, underlying the Jewish-Palestinian conflict is the dangerous obstacle of the Old City of Jerusalem. The breathtaking plateau of the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, considered the third most important religious site in the Muslim world, is built upon the ruins of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in the year 70 AD.  

Boys playing war on rooftops in the Arab part of Jerusalem ©Francesco Cito

 A remnant of the ancient retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount survives today as the Western Wall, the holiest spot for the Jews from a religious and national point of view, where Jews gather to pray.  The rivalry between the two adjacent holy places is bound up with the national conflict and constitutes a great roadblock to achieving the long-sought political solution based on the division of the land of Israel into two separate sovereign states, Israeli and Palestinian, including the division of Jerusalem into two separate national capitals. How to surmount this fundamental challenge, which thwarts every scenario of a negotiated settlement? 

Palestine, Abu Dis ©Francesco Cito

Ironically and paradoxically, the only way to overcome the religious obstacle to the political process is by attaching a holy place of great importance for a third religion to the holy places competing for supremacy in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.  What I have in mind is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as the churches, convents and monasteries located in close proximity to the Temple Mount. About ten years ago, I naively took it upon myself to approach the late former president of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, suggesting that he initiate an effort by Christian Europe to call upon the Israelis and Palestinians to make Christianity an active and equal partner in resolving religious conflicts in Jerusalem.  I advocated turning the Old City within the walls (one square kilometer in all) into a Vatican-style enclave that is not subordinate to any sovereign nation but only to the authority of the three major monotheistic religions. This follows directly from the thinking of Zionist leaders in the early twentieth century: Jerusalem belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone.

Jerusalem, boy in the Old City ©Francesco Cito

The Pope’s visit to Iraq is also significant in that it reminds the wider world that the Arab world is not homogenously Muslim, but includes Arab believers in Christianity.  In the past, if to a lesser degree today, Palestinian intellectuals and other elites were often adherents of Christianity.  Some Palestinian Christians were actively opposed to Zionism, while others, mainly members of the Palestinian communist party, recognized the legitimacy of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 that granted the Jews the right to establish a state in part of Palestine, because the Soviet Union had supported the plan. Christianity was born in the land of Israel.  Evidence of its origins in Judaism is apparent not only in the New Testament, but in the presence, throughout this land of my birth, the core of my identity as an Israeli (my family has lived here for six generations), of churches that have always been a source of pride for me and people like me. These Christian sites underscore the cultural, artistic and spiritual pluralism of this small territory that is home to Jews from all over the world.  Moreover, some of the Palestinians living among and beside us are distant descendants of Jews who refused to go into exile after the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish independence, and in order to remain loyal to the homeland, they converted to Christianity and later also to Islam.

Jerusalem, 1964: Pope VI enters the Church of Gethsemane ©LaPresse, Turin/Historical archive

Christians, especially European Catholics, have a role to play in bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, not least regarding the sensitive subject of the holy places in Jerusalem.  The Catholics, responsible in the past for much of the injustice and persecution suffered by European Jews, should take the lead as partners and peacemakers in the creation of a Holy Basin for three faiths, as a means of facilitating Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

Abu Dis, the wall dividing Israel from Palestine under the control of the Government of Autonomy ©Francesco Cito

The task is difficult and complicated: in the United States, evangelical Christian extremists, devotees of former president Trump, inflame the conflict and feed the fantasies of right-wing elements in Israel who wish to destroy the magnificent Muslim structures on the Temple Mount and replace them with a third Jewish temple. The Pope, who was unafraid to make a risky trip to a Muslim country still riven by complex disputes over fragile national and political issues, can with his wisdom and courage inspire European Catholics, and Protestants as well, to increase their involvement in an effort to defuse, carefully and wisely, the explosive impediment to an overdue political reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians, and to turn the Holy Basin of Jerusalem into a fount of beauty and wisdom.

Palestine ©Francesco Cito

The architectural genius that enabled the Italians to create magnificent churches in Italy can help resolve the peculiar dilemma that the Israelis, who exert political control of the glorious holy places of the two largest monotheistic religions, have only a desolate wall, a frustrating remnant of ancient destruction, where they gather to pray outdoors in all kinds of weather, unfairly implying Jewish inferiority to the other two religions. The Catholics of Italy, possibly descendants of the Romans who destroyed the second Jewish temple, can employ their esthetic talents to persuade the Israelis to give up sovereignty and political control of the Holy Basin in exchange for the construction of a Palace of Monotheism – the original and unique idea that the Jews brought into the world – that will find its proper place between the mosque and the church