Saturday, 23 December 2017


Graffiti like this one by Banksy – the Magi having to go through an Israeli security scanner - make a humorous point about Palestine. Yet Jesus did not joke but wept over Jerusalem’s impending destiny: ‘Would that you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes…The days shall come upon you when your enemies…will dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you’. (St Luke 19:41-44) A true prophecy. A forecast of the dreadful punishment the Romans inflicted on the unholy city after the Jewish revolt of AD 70. Seen by many as divine chastisement for the murder of the Messiah.

‘Jerusalem was always Jewish’, PM Netanyahu boasts. Stuff and nonsense. The name itself alludes to the Jebusites, the original Canaanite owners. After Emperor Hadrian in 136 AD gave the eternally rebellious Hebrews another hammering, the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina - after Hadrian’s first name: Aelius - and Jews expelled from it. When Caliph Omar in 637 AD entered ex-Jerusalem a treaty was drawn up between him and the city of Aelia. Only after that did the Jews came back. (Should Arabs thank Omar? I wonder....) That means that for 500 years Jerusalem was hardly Jewish. Bibi Netanyahu: put that in your pipe and smoke it!

‘Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Qur’an’, a heckler of imprecise origins contended at SOAS last week. Wrong. The Book mentions the city. Not by name but by description. Surah 17:1 says: ‘Glorified is He who took his servant for the night journey from the holy mosque to the farthest mosque’. Muslim scholars interpret the latter as a reference to Jerusalem. That is why al-Quds, as Arabs call it, is the third most sacred site of Islam after Mecca and Medina.

Fast forward to 1099 when the Crusaders took Jerusalem for the Cross and lost it again in 1187. Thereafter, first Arabs then Turks controlled Jerusalem till 1917, when British General Allenby wrested it from the defeated Muslims. After the 1967 war Jerusalem has been de facto but not de jure under Israeli rule. President Trump’s injudicious recognition has opened a can of worms. However, despite all the anger, protests, song and dance one thing is as clear as daylight: the utter impotence of Arabs and Muslims to do a sausage about it.

A changed scenario since 1973 when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a pious and serious Muslim, imposed a tough oil embargo on countries that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As a fresh-faced youth working in London E.J. Brill’s Bookshop in Museum St I had to work by candle light as a result. The embargo effected some limited changes in Western policy towards the Middle East but two years later the King’s nephew shot him dead. A family feud, apparently, or…was there some hidden hand at work? Anyway, today Saudi King Salman and his Crown Prince don’t give a damn about al-Quds. Rapprochement with ‘the Zionist entity’ is halal. Their obsession is war with Iran and Shia Islam. An ancient and bitter quarrel that, some speculate, goes back to ‘disagreements’ between Ali and Aysha. Some of my Muslim friends hate that hypothesis but…it has force.

And Christianity? Christ’s public ministry was not limited to Jerusalem but focussed mostly in Galilee and environs. (Emperor Julian the Apostate indeed liked to deride Christians as ‘Galileans’.) Nonetheless the Messiah’s final journey was to the city of David, his ancestor. Jerusalem’s religious authorities tragically scorned his message and had him crucified. God’s amazing providential plot then unveiled a cosmic twist: Jerusalem witnessed the Resurrection! From it the Good News spread to the whole world. The Acts of the Apostles show from then on Jerusalem became a holy city not only of Judaism but of all humanity.

A quarrelling humanity, sadly. Because of such quarrels the UN 1948 Partition Plan for Palestine sensibly argued that Jerusalem should be a Corpus Separatum. An independent city under a special international regime. A proposition ignored by Israel but till recently embraced by the Vatican. Only the best of a bad job. Because the number of Galileans has fallen dramatically since 1917 when Christians outnumbered Muslims in Jerusalem. By the time the Brits pulled out their presence had been pitifully reduced. Today Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank are barely 2 per cent of the Arab population. Even the shops selling tacky religious souvenirs in the Christian quarter are owned by Muslims. Soon sacred sites like Bethlehem and the city of David may turn into theme parks, a hideous kind of Disneyland, with few native worshippers inhabiting them, said former Archbishop Carey.

The future? A joke has it that there are two possible strategies ahead for Palestine. One utopian and one realistic. The utopian one has the nations concerned agreeing to a peaceful, enduring settlement of all disputes. The realistic one? Moses, Muhammad and Jesus come down from Heaven and impose a just peace. Well, maybe. Supernatural solutions appeal to the priest, of course. My own version is no joke. Because it comes from Holy Scripture. Please, check out the Book of Revelation. St John’ vision of the new, heavenly Jerusalem. In that Holy City ‘there shall be no more be anything accursed but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him forever’.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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