The Six Day War, which gave the Arab-Israeli conflict and the wider Middle East its current shape, is an anniversary that is going mostly unmarked this week in the Christian world.
While Jews both in Israel and throughout the diaspora look back on the astonishing victory of fifty years ago through biblical lenses – When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage, it seemed like a dream (Psalm 126) – the local Christians do not regard it as something to be celebrated.
Jerusalem lies at the heart of the religious geopolitics of our time.
Jews celebrate establishing Jewish sovereignty over a united Jerusalem, including the Old City, for the first time in two millennia.
From 1948 to 1967, when the Old City was under Jordanian control, Jews were expelled from the Old City, the great synagogue was razed, and Jews could not pray at the Western Wall. Jews who remember well those first twenty years of the State of Israel – itself an event of biblical proportions – see in 1967 the completion of their new state in their ancient homeland.
The loss of Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza and Sinai, was a lethal humiliation for pan-Arab nationalism.
The 1967 war meant that the nationalist project of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was in ruins. It would be replaced over subsequent decades by Islamic “nationalism” as it were. Islamic radicalism as a political force rose from the ashes of the Six Day War.
Moreover, Islamic control over the Temple Mount – Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, for Muslims – was a sign of Islam’s presence on the global stage.
That the defining image of Jerusalem would be the Dome of the Rock was a matter of pride to global Islam. Aside from the holiness of the shrines there – exceeded only in importance by Mecca and Medina – holding Jerusalem has great symbolic significance for the status of Islam in the world.
The local Christians are almost entirely Palestinian Arabs, who are ambivalent about the State of Israel.
Israeli control over the capital of Jerusalem, and the holy places in the Old City, was never welcomed but in recent years the thickening of the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank has compromised their access to the holy places. Christian bishops speak of that lack of access as a denial of religious liberty.
The moment of prayer that Pope Francis offered at the security barrier separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem captured that frustration and sense of injustice.
How then might Catholics think about the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, which took place 5-11 June 1967?
One consideration divides Catholics the world over from local Catholics, publicly if not privately. For the security of the holy places and access for pilgrims, it is far better for Jerusalem and the Old City in particular to be under Israeli sovereignty.
Local Catholics would publicly dispute that, but privately they would fear any arrangement whereby the holy places would fall under control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
What if the political situation in Gaza – or Syria, or Iraq – were to be replicated in the West Bank? Could Hamas administer the Holy Sepulchre?
Indeed, despite vehement condemnations from both local Catholics and the Holy See of Israel’s security barrier or separation wall, Catholic institutions and shrines quietly asked to be on the Israeli side. Catholics might well complain about religious liberty restrictions by Israelis, but they would not want to cast their lot with a Muslim-majority Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, Israeli sovereignty pure and simple, as Jordan is sovereign in Amman and Egypt in Cairo, cannot be the final status of Jerusalem.
The holy city is just that, holy to all history, and while it can serve as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, it cannot only be that.
In 1984, at the conclusion of the special Jubilee of the Redemption, St. John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter on Jerusalem, Redemptionis Anno (20th April 1984). He spoke there of how Jerusalem belongs to the spiritual and cultural patrimony of the whole human race, a reality that needed to be reflected in law:
On many occasions the Holy See has called for reflection and urged that an adequate solution be found to this difficult and complex situation. The Holy See has done this because she is concerned for peace among peoples no less than for spiritual, historical, and cultural reasons.
The entire human race, and especially the peoples and nations who have in Jerusalem brothers in faith—Christians, Jews and Muslims—have reason to feel themselves involved in this matter and to do everything possible to preserve the unique and sacred character of the city. Not only the monuments or the sacred places, but the whole historical Jerusalem and the existence of religious communities, their situation and future cannot but affect everyone and interest everyone.
Indeed, there should be found, with goodwill and farsightedness, a concrete and just solution by which different interests and aspirations can be provided for in a harmonious and stable form, and be safe-guarded in an adequate and efficacious manner by a special statute internationally guaranteed so that no party could jeopardize it.
For years, the Holy See’s preference for a “special international statute” for Jerusalem was absolutely opposed by Israel as an illegitimate intrusion into its own sovereign affairs.
However, the Oslo Accords (1993) and various peace proposals since have discussed shared sovereignty, shifting borders and land swaps, so the Holy See’s position is more likely to prevail, should a peace agreement ever come.
Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital, but its unique character will be somehow internationally recognized and guaranteed.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! Every pilgrim to the holy city, to say nothing of its residents, knows the urgency of that prayer.
Fifty years after the Six Day War gave the city its current shape, it is possible – amidst all the difficulties – to see progress. Pilgrims have improved access to the holy places, most of all Jews, who had been denied it.
That is rectification of a historic injustice. And the peace process, stalled though it is, accepts that Jerusalem’s unique character will be respected.
Relations between the Christian Churches are good, as manifest in the recent restoration of Christ’s tomb in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
Those prayers for Jerusalem are not only supplication, but also gratitude.