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Jerusalem- the city we love most and visit least

Written by Rifat Odeh Kassis*
April 15, 2014

Taking the twelve disciples aside, Jesus said, "Listen, we're going up to Jerusalem, where all the predictions of the prophets concerning the Son of Man will come true." Then Jesus had his disciples bring him a colt, and they threw their cloaks over it for him to ride. The news of his arrival rippled through the city, and crowds poured out onto the road to see him.

For me -- as for most Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians -- Jerusalem is the city we love most and visit least.

As a little boy, I remember traveling to Jerusalem with my late father along the old road -- a trip that took many hours due to the "no-man's zone" that forbade us from directly accessing the divided city.

Despite the obstacles that existed even then, I remember going to Jerusalem as a deeply happy event. It meant eating the sweets we couldn't find in our village, and visiting the holy places we'd only heard about in school and church. Or else it meant going to the doctor, since most doctors were based in Jerusalem at that time. In any case, my sentimental relationship with the city is strong.

When the First Intifada broke out in 1987, Jerusalem was sealed off to those of us who lived in the so-called West Bank, and we had to obtain special permits in order to enter the city. Legally, visiting Jerusalem became impossible for me; because I was a past political prisoner, I was put on some kind of state blacklist, and so the Israeli authorities wouldn't grant me a permit.

Since 2002, I have not returned to Jerusalem. My 29-year-old son, Dafer, has never visited it at all, although he has probably traveled around half the world. Being barred from Jerusalem is a great emotional and psychological loss to me and to my family.

For Palestinian Christians, Jerusalem is marked not only by symbolic richness, but also by symbolic tensions. First of all, although Jerusalem is considered to be sacred for Christians all over the world -- the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, the birthplace of Christianity itself, the site of the first churches and the historical destination of pilgrimages -- it is in many ways a normal city for us, Palestinians. It is our political capital, and has traditionally been an economic hub, a center of tourism, health services and education.

In this sense, then, my relation to Jerusalem as a Palestinian Christian is twofold: it is, for me, both the universal sacred place where people go to pray and connect to the holy sites and the capital of my country, Palestine -- even when the occupying state doesn't acknowledge it as such.

Even more powerfully, however, Jerusalem is the universal sacred place I cannot go to practice my faith, and the capital city I cannot visit.

Jerusalem is also a focal point of the Palestinian struggle: the place where our struggle began and where it will end. Its significance is symbolic on both a religious and a political scale, both for Palestinians and for Israelis.

According to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory, as are the parts of the West Bank that Israel unilaterally annexed to the district of Jerusalem. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907 forbid occupying powers from altering the ways of life of occupied citizens; they likewise prohibit members of the occupying state from settling in the occupied territory.

This means that Israel's actions in East Jerusalem, throughout history as well as today, constitute gross violations of international law.

The violations themselves are copious and ongoing: historical expropriation (since 1967 and through the present day) of private Palestinian-owned land, paving the way for illegal Israeli settlements (referred to as "neighborhoods" in internal Israeli discourse) and demolition of Palestinian houses, leaving many people homeless along with discriminatory housing permit policies; Israel's "quiet transfer" policy, revoking the residency of East Jerusalemites who moved away from municipal borders and countless others.

Israel is not simply trying to find its place in Jerusalem. Rather, it is trying to monopolize Jerusalem (again, on both quotidian levels and on universal, sacred ones) and exclude Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the city.

For us Palestinians, Jerusalem is a city for all three faiths: Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Its sacredness should not be stifled, and its holiest symbols -- like the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians and the Wailing Wall for Jews -- all deserve their space in this universal city. Any attempt to monopolize them is an attempt to monopolize that universality, and this is an effort we, all peoples, must resist.

In "A Moment of Truth," the Kairos Palestine document, we address Jerusalem both from a specifically Palestinian Christian perspective and from a universal human one.

We state very clearly that Jerusalem is an occupied city; that the occupation of Jerusalem is a sin against God and humanity; and that it constitutes a defiance of His will as well as that of the international community. We also stress that Jerusalem should be the place of and model for reconciliation -- not the locus of and reason for our conflict, which is the role it has today.

Thus, we believe that the issue of Jerusalem should be the beginning of our reconciliation, and should absolutely not be left to the so-called "final" items on the negotiation agenda. Resolving the conflict over Jerusalem first will establish a model for the two nations themselves, as well as for resolving other conflicts between them; it will also encourage the growth and development of a just peace in our region.

No matter what, Palestinians must have the right to exert their sovereignty in East Jerusalem. No matter what, I am certain that the future of Jerusalem will dictate the future of the conflict itself. And no matter what, I hope, as the Kairos Document urges, that the very nature of Jerusalem -- universal, sacred, and embracing -- will be honored as we proceed. It has much to teach us.

This Easter, Kairos Palestine chose to issue an alert to all churches and Christians all over the world. The focus of this alert is on Jerusalem and Jerusalemites: their reality, their plight, and their rights. In this alert, Kairos Palestine urged, all Christians all over the world to turn their eyes to Jerusalem and its inhabitants; to keep them in their prayers; and to work toward exercising pressure on Israel as the occupying power to life its occupation and to open Jerusalem for all faithful people.

Kairos Palestine asked its supporters to turn the tide by engaging in several activities like distributing the alert and the study materials within their church communities to inform and educate them about the situation of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and to the Alert with congregations and dioceses across their countries. And to send letters of solidarity and support for justice in Palestine/Israel to the Israeli embassies in their own countries.

Kairos Palestine urged them to answer its call to come and see to know the facts and the people of this land and to be in solidarity with them to finally live in peace with justice.

*Rifat Odeh Kassis is the general coordinator of the Palestinian-Christian activist group Kairos.



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