Jerusalem is a sacred spot to all three Abrahamic religions. In the Old City one finds the Western Wall, which is a remnant of the ancient wall that once surrounded the courtyard of the Jewish Temple. The Temple Mount is also the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the third-holiest site in Islam. because of its connection with Muhammad. And the Church of the Resurrection marks the place where Christians believe Christ died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. No wonder that these three religions have repeatedly disputed possession of the city, and have shed much blood in the process.
Jerusalem is also the home of the first Christian church. James, a brother of Jesus, was the first leader of this church, which was disbanded after the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Yet today there is still a strong Christian presence in the city, although greatly diminished from what it was in its heyday.
Israeli law recognizes five religions. The Israeli population today is about 76% Jewish, 16% Muslim, 2% Christian, and less than 2% Druze. Baha'i, the other recognized religion, as well as other minority groups or people who are not classified, account for the rest.
The law also formally recognizes ten Christian "sects." Catholics (five different rites) constitute about half of the Christians at present. The Orthodox are divided into nine groups and account for a little more than a quarter of the Christian population. And Protestants and Independents (about 70 denominations and individual congregations) make up the balance.
But the Christian Church in Israel is very fragmented, although there are now the beginnings of unity. About 80% is Arab, 12% are expatriates, and 8% is Jewish.
Even though the Christian population of Palestine is steadily declining, the Christians in Israel are growing in absolute terms, largely because of immigration and conversion. The annual growth is about 5%, but this is exceeded by the immigration of Jews from all over the world.
Since Israel was founded to give a national home to people who are Jewish, it gives preferential treatment to Jews and their relatives who immigrate to Israel. As a result, no non-Jewish Israeli enjoys the full civil rights promised by Israeli law.
This is especially true of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Christian Palestinians are not excluded. In fact, because of emigration, Christians now form an ever smaller proportion of the population. Israeli leaders are only too happy to see these Christian Palestinians leave.
Israelis assert that this Christian exodus is the result of a growing Islamic extremism. They claim that these Christians are the victims of a "clash of civilizations."
The idea of a clash of civilizations is often attributed to the late Samuel Huntington, but it grew originally out of a world view that was shaped by Israel's interpretation of its own experiences. Now is not the appropriate moment to discuss Huntington's much debated thesis any further, except to note that it provides a theoretic basis for the war on terror that Muslims interpret as a crusade against Islam.
In an age when we ought to build bridges between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, another crusade is the last thing the world needs. Instead of fighting over these holy sites, why can these three religions not learn to share the city of Jerusalem in a way that respects each other's rights and traditions?
Although there are not many Christians in Israel, they can and must become models of how these religions should interact with each other. As followers of the Prince of Peace, they should strive for a lasting and just peace between Israel and Palestine.
Israeli Christians are a small enough group not to pose a threat to their fellow Jewish and Muslim citizens. Let us pray that Christian Zionists from elsewhere, through their strong pro-Israeli stance, will not undermine this attempt to build bridges.
I will write more about Christian Zionism in a future post.