Theologians clarify importance of Jerusalem to three faiths

May 08, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians invited here for a forum to emphasize Jerusalem's importance to each of their three faiths differed, predictably, on many points.

But all agreed that no enduring political decisions about the city's future can disregard its shared religious significance.

The interfaith program "provided a secure and thoughtful theological foundation for the more explosive political discussions about Jerusalem," said George Weigel, who moderated the program attended by several hundred people last Thursday at Beth El synagogue.

"You cannot expect to turn Jerusalem into Secular City," joked Mr. Weigel, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "There's no ACLU solution to this problem."

The underlying problem, left unresolved by the symposium as well as by the recent peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, is that both claim Jerusalem, which Israel controls now.

The Pikesville discussions highlighted theological differences and differing views of history despite the three panelists' shared religious heritage as "people of the Book" -- or Old Testament.

Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, associate professor of Talmud and Midrash at Brandeis University, said flatly: "Jerusalem is a possession of the Jewish people." Referring to the king who was the reputed author of the Psalms, he said, "No one has left his name on the city except David."

Robert L. Wilken, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, said that "Jerusalem is where events of Christ's life took place, including, Christians believe, his resurrection." Christian communities founded after Christ's death persevered in Jerusalem, "the Christian city par excellence," Mr. Wilken said.

But Rabbi Kimelman disputed the description of Jerusalem as a "Christian city," saying it became Christian only after it was conquered by Christians. Mr. Wilken countered that "Christians did not conquer Palestine." The purpose of the Crusades was to "regain" what others had conquered, he said.

Rabbi Kimelman noted that Jews, no matter how "assimilated" and in whatever parts of the world, "always believe their real home is Jerusalem. "The land belongs to those who make it flourish," he said, to which Mr. Wilken replied: "Well, the Christians cultivated the land and cultivated it for centuries."

"And also the Muslims!" added Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies at Temple University, to laughter by panelists and the audience.

Mr. Ayoub lamented, "It was only exile and only tragedy that gave Jerusalem religious significance."

To the Jews and the Christians in the audience, the Muslim spokesman said, "Your God and our God is one," offering this challenge: "Fulfillment of the ancient prophesy" -- envisioning Jerusalem as "an idea of harmony, an idea of peace" -- "really depends on us."

The symposium, "Jerusalem: At the Crossroads," was organized by the Jerusalem Foundation Inc., B'nai B'rith, the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

Mr. Weigel said participants "seemed taken with the irenic [peaceful] spirit of Professor Ayoub" and added, "There is a striking difference between his sense of the universality of Jerusalem and the rather more aggressive statements from some other Muslims.

"It was a refreshing change."

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