Report on the Symposium of Bishops Conferences on the State of Jerusalem, November 17, 1998

Year Published
  • 2018
  • English

To the General Meeting of the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops

Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick
Chairman, USCC International Policy Committee
November 17, 1998


Three weeks ago, in response to an invitation from Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Bishop Fiorenza, representing Bishop Pilla, Cardinal Law and I were privileged to participate in a two-day symposium on the future of Jerusalem held at the Latin Patriarchate within the historic walls of the Old City. The purpose of our meeting was to enlist the cooperation of the Bishops' Conferences of the world in helping secure the future of the Holy City in its uniqueness and universal religious significance as a heritage of the whole human family. Together with us were bishops representing most of the world's regional councils of Bishops' Conferences and several of the major National Bishops' Conferences, including Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

During the course of the two days, we heard several presentations from different perspectives. We listened to the hopes for the future of the City from a representative of the Greek Orthodox Church. A member of the Knesset gave us an Israeli and Jewish view. An official of the Palestinian authority presented the Palestinian and Muslim position. One of the highlights of the meeting was a clear and strong message by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States. Patriarch Sabbah himself reviewed with us a key document for all the Christian Churches - the Memorandum of the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches issued in November 1994. A delegation of seven of us, including Cardinal Law, met with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, and all those who were able had lunch with Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat in Gaza.

Why are the episcopates of the world being asked to assume the role of serving as Jerusalem's Ambassadors at this point in time? There are two reasons, I believe. The first is the May 4 deadline set by the Oslo Agreement for the conclusion of final status talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority.

The second is the coming Great Jubilee of the Incarnation in the year 2000, a time when Jerusalem should realize its historic vocation to serve as the City of the encounter between God and humanity, to be a place of harmony and peace for the three great monotheistic religions of the world.

The May 4th date is significant because by that time Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are supposed to reach a "Final Status Agreement" on Jerusalem. The final status of Jerusalem involves political and territorial issues, basically questions as to which government or governments will have sovereignty in the City, and how will the two peoples share the land of the City? On these two issues, the Holy See looks for a just solution adequate to the national aspirations of both peoples. The other dimension of any final status agreement for the City is the religious question: How shall the uniqueness of Jerusalem and its universal significance as a City sacred to the three monotheistic religions be preserved and safeguarded?

To this end, the Holy See has proposed that Jerusalem requires a special statute, to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. In consultation with the three religious communities in Jerusalem - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - and to be further guaranteed by the international community.

According to Archbishop Tauran's address the Jerusalem statute would address three issues:

  1. the preservation - and in some cases the restoration - and the safeguarding of the historic and material, religious and cultural characteristics of the City
  2. guarantees of an equality of rights and treatment for those belonging to the three religions in the City, and freedom for the religious communities in their spiritual, cultural, civic and economic activities.
  3. Protection for the holy places and freedom of access to them for residents and pilgrims alike, whether from the Holy Land itself or from abroad.

At the conclusion of his address, Archbishop Tauran asked the episcopates of the world "To become Jerusalem's Ambassadors within the local Churches, to your respective nations and societies, and to the institutions and authorities thereof." Archbishop Tauran' appeal may be understood as a specification of the request made by the Holy See to our Conference last December. You may recall that I reported this to you by letter in March, asking you to be advocates for the Church and the people of the Holy Land. With the Inter-Conference Symposium on Jerusalem, and with its advocacy on the question of Jerusalem, the Holy See has, in the clearest possible terms, placed Jerusalem at the top of the international agenda for our own conference and these other conferences who attended.

The request for help to advocate for the peace of Jerusalem comes not just to the offices of our Conference, but to all our bishops. We recognize that this is an extremely delicate matter given the difficulties facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the central role of the U.S. Government, and the importance of our relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities.

For that reason, Bishop Fiorenza proposed that we have take some time to discuss the Holy See's request here today. As we move ahead, with the help of the office of International Justice and Peace and the cooperation of other committees and offices of the Conference, I should hope to provide you with more detailed and practical guidance in the course of the coming months.

I would like to add that the present focus on Jerusalem is in continuity with our policy for the Middle East region and our 1989 statement Toward Peace in the Middle East. We continue to work in the cause of a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of UN resolutions and the land-for-peace formula.

We stand for security for Israel, a homeland for Palestinians and full and equal right for both. We, likewise, support the restoration of full sovereignty and independence to Lebanon. Following on my recent visit to Lebanon, I will release a more detailed statement on Lebanon later today.

For now, I would like to ask Bishop Fiorenza and Cardinal Law to add their comments about the meeting and the mission which came from it. When they have finished, perhaps the President will allow us a few minutes for questions and discussions from the floor.