by Elaine Ruth Fletcher
Religion News Service
JERUSALEM -- Palestinian officials have sponsored a first-ever gathering of Christian and Muslim religious leaders to discuss the future status of Jerusalem and its holy sites.
But many of the city's leading Christian figures stayed away from the politically charged meeting, which concluded with a declaration supporting Palestinian control of the Old City's holy sites.
"Any peace agreement that doesn't guarantee full Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem with all of its Islamic and Christian sites is doomed to failure because Jerusalem, for Muslims and Christians, is the political, national and spiritual capital," the group said in a statement issued after the July 29 meeting.
The statement lashed out against Israel's "occupation" of Jerusalem as well as against policies promoting "Judaization" of the city as "disfiguring the history of Jerusalem and covering up the Palestinian, Arab identity of this eternal city."
The patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic and Armenian churches, which represent the main Christian communities in the Holy Land, all stayed away from the meeting. But a prominent Greek Orthodox archbishop, Attalah Hannah, was present along with lower-level leaders from other Christian denominations.
The meeting was held at Jerusalem's Orient House, the Palestinian Authority's de facto headquarters in Jerusalem, under the auspices of Faisal Husseini, Palestinian Authority Minister in charge of Jerusalem Affairs, and Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the supreme Islamic religious leader in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
The meeting was the first of what is likely to be an intensive public relations campaign among both Israelis and Palestinians, here and abroad, to call attention to their competing claims on the city revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders are jockeying for international support for their respective claims to Jerusalem following the failure of the recent summit meeting between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Arafat has received considerable criticism from President Clinton for taking an uncompromising position calling for full Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem's Old City holy sites. Clinton went so far as to suggest the United States might move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Arafat's stance has been well received in the Arab Muslim world, where the summit's failure actually boosted his image as a tough leader. Barak, meanwhile, has sought to reassure the Jewish public that his greater willingness to compromise in a final status agreement over Jerusalem does not mean relinquishing sovereignty over the Old City's Temple Mount, which housed the Jewish temple in biblical times and now includes one of Islam's most sacred mosques.
"No Jew would concede sovereignty on the Temple Mount," Barak was quoted as saying on Israel Radio July 30 after radical Jews tried to ascend to the site for prayers but were barred from entering by Muslim religious officials until Israeli police intervened.
The mount is sacred to Jews, but also to Muslims who revere the ancient Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock which have occupied the site since the 8th century. The Prophet Mohammed is believed by many to have ascended into heaven from the Dome of the Rock.