By Radwan al-Sayed
26 April 2018
Earlier this month, Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican, visited Riyadh where he met with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. His visit was considered historical.
Over the past six years, despite the rising number of extremist and terrorist incidents, relations between Christians and Muslims have witnessed major breakthroughs in terms of exchanging visits with the Vatican. Pope Francis has himself paid visits to Egypt and Turkey, while Arab and Muslim religious officials have also visited the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
There was a consensus to cooperate to combat extremism and terrorism, confront immigration and Islamophobia, issues facing Muslim minorities across the globe and the cohabitation between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world and other Islamic countries.
Pope Francis has taken distinctive positions on issues pertaining to violence and wars in Arab and Muslim countries and against the discrimination endured by Muslims in the West. The Pope was displeased with the position taken by US President Donald Trump on the Jerusalem issue, along with the halting of peace talks to bring justice to the Palestinian people.
Jerusalem at the Centre of Conflict
Yet, there is quite some level of ambiguity over the question of Jerusalem itself. The Vatican has for a while now maintained that the holy sites in Jerusalem must be internationalized and taken out of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Arab parties have kept their silence on this issue considering that Zionists want to take control of all of Jerusalem, especially its religious sites, and that the unification of Jerusalem as an eternal capital of Israel will further harm peace between religions in Jerusalem. Still, no one saw an interest in opposing the Vatican, given the fact that the Arab parties insist that the Old City of Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, of course without excluding its holy sites.
Now that President Trump’s possible visit to Israel in mid-May has neared, the US has started negotiations with the Vatican over the possible special status of Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the surrounding areas, to facilitate the final phase of colonization of Jerusalem for Israelis without the objection of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian authorities, especially since some Protestant and Evangelical authorities share closer positions with the Israeli stance.
There is a solid Arab and Islamic position regarding Jerusalem and its freedom and which insists that it is the political capital of the Palestinian Arab state. Then there is the position of the Arab Christians of Palestine and Jerusalem — currently living in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
They were always against the colonization of Jerusalem by Zionists, including the holy sites. It is known that some of them opposed Trump’s statement. We also know that the former Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria had banned the Copts of Egypt from visiting Jerusalem under occupation. Muslims are still disputing over whether or not to visit Jerusalem in support of its people, despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority supports such visits.
The debate over the usefulness of visiting Jerusalem is a waste of time and is no longer justified. Zionist colonies are expanding in Jerusalem and adjoining areas, while Palestinians, Muslims and Christians are being displaced against their will or by the purchase of their lands. The Palestinian people are urging for our solidarity, even if through a visit.
The Palestinians today are trying to do something beginning from Gaza. It is then unnecessary to hesitate on whether to visit Jerusalem or not under the pretext that it is occupied. The occupation aims to displace people and remove holy places. A visit by a million or two million people to Jerusalem every year will send a message to the Palestinians that we have not abandoned them.
Moral Christian Influence
The numbers of Christians in Jerusalem and Palestine have decreased because of the pressure and circumstances of the occupation. Yet the Vatican has a great moral influence, just like the Christians of Palestine and the world. The same thing can be said about the Eastern Orthodox Church, whom the majority of Arab Christians belong to, and Russian and Greek political and religious positions.
There is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority should be the one to approach the Catholic and Orthodox communities, as well as the Protestant and Anglican churches that disagree with the orientations of the new Zionized evangelical institutions.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan and their religious authorities have great moral and political power in Arab and Islamic societies as well as in the international community. Palestinian and Arab parties should thus work together in solidarity with the Arab Christians to complement their role towards the world’s religious and political parties.
I do not know if there has been any development in terms of communication and agreement, or in terms of taking action in this regard, but the visit of Cardinal Tauran to Riyadh may have fostered this consultative spirit and the spirit of solidarity in preserving Jerusalem’s freedom, religious safety and holy places.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.