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Jerusalem and the Holy Sites

Today, Jerusalem sits at the center of much of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. As Jerusalem resident and expert Daniel Seidemann says, “What happens in Jerusalem doesn’t stay in Jerusalem.”

What we’re seeing in the region has the potential to escalate dramatically, should tensions move into Jerusalem, a “holy city” for the three Abrahamic faiths. We must understand why Jerusalem stands at the center of so much conflict in order to participate in the work of peacemaking in the region.

Yet it is crucial to approach Jerusalem not only as a city of historic and ongoing confrontation but also as a living, breathing entity that holds the collective heartbeats of diverse faiths and cultures. In this time of crisis, we must both invest in our deeper learning and commit to active hope that promotes the possibility of dignity, security, and freedom for all peoples and faiths in the region.

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Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to the Early Bronze Age c. 3000 BCE. It holds immense historic, religious, and cultural significance for world history, but particularly for the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Holy Sites of Jerusalem
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
The most prominent holy site in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews and (often) Christians, or Haram al-Sharif, as it’s known to Muslims.

For Muslims, Haram al-Sharif is a sacred place that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock is recognized as the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during the Night Journey and received a revelation from Allah. Originally, Mohammed and early Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem in recognition of the sacredness of this site. The entire plaza, including the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, is considered the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.

For Jews, it is believed to be the location of both the First and Second Temples, central to Jewish worship and history. The ancient Jewish Temples included the Holy of Holies, a physical site of Yahweh’s presence. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, while the retaining wall from the Second Temple period known as the Western Wall has been the most sacred site of Jewish prayer since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Western Wall
The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is the only remaining accessible and exposed part of the ancient retaining wall that surrounded the First and Second Temples, the holiest places in Jewish tradition.

Jews from around the world come to this site to pray, as it is the closest place to the location of the original Temples at which Jews are allowed to pray. It also has significance to Muslims, who refer to it as the Buraq Wall, because it is the site where the Prophet Mohammad tied his horse on his Night Journey.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds particular importance to most historic Christian traditions as it is built over the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The original church was built by the Roman emperor Constantine I, and over the centuries it was destroyed and reconstructed several times. It is considered one of the holiest sites in Christianity and attracts scores of pilgrims and worshipers every day. Today, many different Christian traditions share ownership over the space, making it a mosaic of tradition and practice.

Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives, situated to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City, holds significant religious and historical importance across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically, it has served as a Jewish burial site for over 3,000 years.

For Christians, the Mount is associated with several key events in the life of Jesus, including his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and his ascension to heaven as recounted in the New Testament. The Mount of Olives also holds significance concerning end-of-time prophecies as it is believed to be a key location in the events leading to the Day of Judgment. Although specific references to the Mount of Olives may not be explicit in the Quran, Islamic tradition and Hadith literature discuss signs and events of the end times that resonate with the significance of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas.

The Mount of Olives offers a strategic vantage point over Jerusalem, contributing to its role in various historical conflicts and events. Today, it is a focal site for pilgrimage and tourism.

Changing Status

Mandate Palestine, 1948, and 1967
Prior to the British mandate, Jerusalem was a diverse, multi-faith city. Communities of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others lived alongside each other in relative harmony within the Old City walls, where most of the holy sites exist. During the British Mandate period, the British defined “quarters” within the Old City for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Armenians—a classic example of British “divide and conquer” policy, and the beginning of heightening tensions within the city.

After the British mandate ended, neighboring Arab armies and the newly established Israeli state came to an armistice in 1949 that saw Jerusalem cut in half: the newly established Israel controlled the west half and Jordan began occupying the east. Between 1947-1949, around 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee from their homes and the communities they had resided in for generations, becoming refugees that have never been allowed to return to their homes, and around 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed. This period and its legacy is known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” to Palestinians.

After the war in 1967, Israel began occupying the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and East Jerusalem. It also claimed all of Jerusalem as the unified capital of Israel—a move most of the international community rejected and still rejects, saying Israel cannot claim sovereignty over Jerusalem by force. Palestinians living under this military occupation, which has now lasted for nearly 57 years, face unrelenting challenges (you can read more about that here). Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, specifically, were given revocable “permanent residency” status but not citizenship and face the threat of forced eviction and removal from their homes.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jews living in East Jerusalem and other parts the West Bank, known as Biblical Judea and Samaria to these communities, were forced out of their homes and barred from accessing the Western Wall for the 19 years of Jordanian rule, marking a period of profound grief for Jewish communities.

The transition of Jerusalem to Israeli control after 1967 was met with a feeling of profound triumph for Jews. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, Jews had unrestricted access to the remnants of the Second Temple. The event was emblematic not just of a military victory but of a profound spiritual and historical reconnection for the Jewish people.

The Western Wall became a central point for Jewish prayer and national identity. Meanwhile, the site also became a symbol of occupation for Palestinians, as the Western Wall compound—as it stands today—was built through the destruction of Arab homes and the displacement of their residents.

After the war, the management of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif itself was negotiated to include oversight by an institution known as the Waqf, which is managed by the Jordanian monarchy. The Waqf holds responsibility for administering donated assets and properties for religious, educational, and social purposes, as guided by Islamic law, and manages the use of the space for religious services.

As part of this agreement, Jewish prayer was prohibited at the Temple Mount, in no small part because of a ruling by the rabbinical council, which said the site was too sacred for Jewish prayer—Jews might unintentionally step on the site of the Holy of Holies, a sacred space that could only be entered by the Temple High Priest once a year according to tradition. This arrangement is often referred to as the “status quo” at the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif.

The Oslo Accords, initiated in the early 1990s, marked the first significant attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through direct negotiations; the permanent status of Jerusalem and its holy sites was one of the most complex and emotionally charged topics during the negotiations. It ultimately remained unresolved.

Palestinians sought East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israelis, on the other hand, considered Jerusalem their eternal and undivided capital. The Oslo Accords ultimately failed to resolve the issue of Jerusalem, along with other core disputes. The peace process stalled and subsequent initiatives have similarly struggled to address the city’s complex status.

Jerusalem Embassy
In 2017, former President Trump declared the US government would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, disrupting the status quo of Jerusalem remaining a future status issue. The move communicated that the US government recognized Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, which long-standing US policy and international consensus opposed. Palestinians had long held that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state. The embassy move represented to Palestinians another example of the international community, with the US at its head, sidelining their concerns. Notably, Trump went on record saying he made the move “for the evangelicals.

Holy Sites Today

Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
For many Jews, the ability to pray at their holiest site represents both a matter of religious observance and connection to national history. The status quo restrictions on prayer inside the Temple Mount compound are often viewed as a concession to political pressures and a compromise of Jewish rights in favor of maintaining a fragile status quo.

Importantly, there is a previously fringe and now increasingly powerful movement to rebuild the ancient Jewish temple on the site of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This community, known as the Third Temple Movement, now includes members of the Israeli Cabinet, giving it access to immense institutional power.

This community intends to construct a Third Jewish Temple and destroy Muslim holy sites at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and often provokes reactions by performing sacrificial rituals and prayers on the compound, testing the status quo. Many Christian Zionists also support this movement, believing it will help usher in Armageddon and the 1000 year reign of Christ.

Israel’s ultimate control over the Temple Mount since 1967, and the subsequent management arrangements that permit Jewish visits but forbid prayer, are seen by Palestinians not just as inert policies but as manifestations of their ongoing dispossession. Israeli security personnel control who can enter the compound and often restrict access.

The presence of Israeli security forces and restrictions on Palestinian access at Haram al-Sharif exacerbate feelings of injustice and are symptomatic of the broader inequities in the region. This is especially apparent during religious holidays such as Ramadan. Palestinians who travel to Al-Aqsa mosque to pray must have permits to enter and are subject to intense search and surveillance by IDF soldiers. This year, only Palestinians from the West Bank over the age of 55 and under the age of 10 have been allowed to enter the compound to pray, generating outrage and grief for a community already suffering under ongoing occupation. During Ramadan in previous years, Israeli forces raided the compound, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at worshipers, claiming they were staying longer than what was allowed.

Christian Holy Sites
Palestinian Christians who live in the West Bank or Gaza are unable to access the holy sites in Jerusalem without special permits, and must (like all Palestinians) cross military checkpoints to enter Jerusalem. Additionally, in recent years, Israeli authorities have implemented restrictions on access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during significant Christian holidays, citing security and safety concerns. These measures, which limit the number of worshipers and involved heightened security checks, have been met with criticism from church leaders and the Christian community, who argue such actions infringe upon their religious freedoms and rights.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem live in constant fear. Like other Palestinian Jerusalemites, many do not have citizenship and live in constant fear of Israel revoking their residency permits or demolishing their homes. And settler activity in East Jerusalem has accelerated in recent years, particularly since October 7th, often targeting Palestinian Christian communities and homes. In particular, the historic Christian Armenian community in the Old City is facing a crisis of land dispossession, after a deal struck between a Jewish developer and the community’s patriarch was made public. Though the deal was struck down, a group of armed settler activists recently attempted to force construction on the property and force residents out.

In recent years, the fastest decline of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, outside of the horrific reality in Gaza, has been in East Jerusalem, where this ancient community is at risk of imminent extinction. Not only is access to holy sites limited, but the very fabric of the community—economic, cultural, and political—is being torn apart.

“What Happens in Jerusalem Doesn’t Stay in Jerusalem”
Escalations of violence in Jerusalem have strong ripple effects in Gaza and the West Bank. When Ariel Sharon, the opposition leader in the Israeli Knesset, entered the Temple Mount compound for a campaign event in September, 2000, flanked by over 1,000 security guards, it sparked the Second Intifada—one of the deadliest periods of violence in Israel/Palestine.

Hamas called its unjustifiable October 7th attack on Israel ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’, claiming that their violent actions were a reaction to ongoing Israeli occupation, incursions into Al-Aqsa, and the efforts of some far-right movements in Israeli society—including members of the current Israeli cabinet—to seize complete control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to build a new Third Temple.

Importantly, the conflict of the holy sites is not simply a “religious” difference. It is rooted in the broader context of national identities and the struggle for self-determination and freedom amidst an ongoing military occupation. It’s a vivid illustration of how sacred spaces can become focal points for broader geopolitical battles, reflecting a painful history of displacement. The challenge lies not just in acknowledging these deeply rooted connections but in addressing the inherent power imbalances and pursuing a future where human rights and the dignity of all communities are upheld.

Why it Matters

Because of the significance of Jerusalem and its holy sites for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, events in this area have an outsize impact on the political outcomes of the region.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding Jerusalem’s sacredness can pave the way for empathy, respect, and, ultimately, a foundation for true peace. It is essential to recognize that Jerusalem does not speak with one voice but many. To truly grasp the essence of this city and its role in the conflict, we must allow Jerusalem to express herself through the narratives of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim voices that together form her rich identity.

There is no good future for anyone unless there is a good future for everyone.

What To Do Next
Continue to call for a ceasefire and release of all captives. Engage with your community leaders. Keep speaking up, showing up, and paying attention.

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