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A hundred years after theBalfourDeclaration Is Christianity doomed in Jerusalem? Frank Gelli reflects on the Balfour Declaration

I hate the name of that street. I can’t bear being anywhere near it!’ Afif, a Palestinian Christian businessman, told me. He has good reasons. Balfour Street, in the West Jerusalem area of Talbieh, is named after Lord James Balfour, Foreign Secretary and author of the inglorious 1917 Declaration, a policy statement by the British Government pledging ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. Many of the current woes of the Palestinian people go back to that very name: Balfour. In a book entitled ‘Divided Jerusalem - the Struggle for the Holy City’, Professor Bernard Wasserstein, a worthy JewishAmerican academic, has documented the melancholy decadence of Christian Jerusalem after Balfour. Towards the end of Ottoman rule Christians were more numerous than Muslims in the Holy City. (12.900 Christians to 12.000 Muslims.) By the time the British pulled out in 1948 and the State of Israel was created, the Christian presence had dramatically fallen. Today they are barely two percent of the Arab population, including the West Bank. Even most of the shops selling religious souvenirs to pilgrims in the Jerusalem Christian quarter are no longer in Christian ownership. On a visit there former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey worried that ancient Christian sites in Palestine like Bethlehem and Jerusalem may soon become a kind of Disneyland, mere theme parks, with hardly any Christians inhabiting them. A grim but real prospect. The Holy City, sacred to the three great monotheistic faiths, is, of course, a place of tremendous symbolism. The seat of


November 2017

King David, the theatre of Jesus Christ’s ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to Heaven and also the prefiguration of the New Jerusalem, emblem of man’s final, transfigured destiny, as the Book of Revelation indicates. An uplifting emblem of divine salvation history. Could there be a city on earth more superb? In fact, when Jesus walked the earth he had some pretty harsh things to say about the Holy City. St Matthew’s Gospel reports him crying out: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and those who are sent to her! How often I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’ This was the last of seven apocalyptic warnings Jesus pronounced against the religious hypocrites of his time, the wicked people who masqueraded as pious while plotting against the Messiah to destroy him. Significantly, one of the murdered prophets was Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, whose last words were not forgiveness: ‘May the Lord see and avenge.’ Apart from demographic decline, one serious weakness besetting the Christian Churches in Jerusalem is their disunity. Broadly speaking, there are four main categories: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Monophysite. However, this classification does not tell the full story. For example, the Orthodox comprises both Greek and Russian Churches, not at all in agreement with each other. (Their parishes are composed of the predominantly Arab-speaking faithful.) Further, the Russians owe allegiance to different Patriarchates. The Monophysites consist of Churches like

Islam Today issue 53 November 2017  

A monthly magazine on faith, belief, community, interfaith, health and more...