If history has taught us anything, it is that mixing religion with politics is generally a very bad idea. After the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Islamic State group, one would think that leading church figures would have gotten the message. Yet two leading Christian clerics in the UK are pressuring Prime Minister Liz Truss as she mulls a political matter of no religious concern to them.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, sent a letter to Liz Truss, England’s new prime minister, asking her not to relocate the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, as she had indicated she might do. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the chief cleric in the Church of England, followed suit in a newspaper interview.
Had there been a scintilla of religious or moral basis for such criticism, then the messages to Prime Minister Truss would have been completely appropriate. There is none, however, and the two clerics know it.
Since the 1967 Six Day War, the city of Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli control. Ever since then, Christians have enjoyed undisturbed full access to their holy sites. The Israeli authorities are even called in to restore calm when conflicts between different Christian groups flair up from time to time. Under Israeli jurisdiction, there has been nothing like the desecration of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002 by Palestinian gunmen.
Cardinal Nichols chose to cross over and weigh in the world of politics: “A relocation of the UK Embassy would be seriously damaging to any possibility of lasting peace in the region and to the international reputation of the United Kingdom.”
This is very difficult to accept. Has the corrupt Palestinian Authority – whose pay-to-slay-Jews policy rewards murderers of Jews with stipends for the terrorists and families, which never passed a law protecting the religious rights of Christians, whose media whip up hysteria with the big lie that Al-Aqsa Mosque is under attack by Jews on every Jewish holiday – ever shown any real commitment to peace with its Jewish neighbors? The truth is that the US move of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had virtually no impact and neither will the UK’s move.
Cardinal Nichols continued: “Pope Francis and the leaders of churches in the Holy Land have long called for the international status quo on Jerusalem to be upheld, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations. The city must be shared as a common patrimony, never becoming an exclusive monopoly of any party.”
International status quo? Was that the status quo that the world silently accepted when Jordan occupied Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948, destroyed its synagogues, and desecrated the historic Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery? Was that the status quo that barred all Jews from entering the Old City to pray at the Western Wall for 19 years?
In fact, the proposed status quo of an internationalized Jerusalem was shattered forever, with nary a protest from diplomats or clerics.
Indeed, in recent years, the Vatican negotiated directly with Israel to gain the right to fly its flag over all of its significant real estate across Jerusalem – old and new.
Do any of Israel’s neighbors allow the Vatican the same rights?
When the UN developed its corpus separatum idea (that Jerusalem would be an international city, not joined to either a Jewish or Arab state), Jerusalem was a backwater of some 160,000 souls. The UN’s chief concern then was the protection of holy sites in and near the Old City.
It had no idea that in 2022, a modern city with a population of 883,000 people would grow beyond the older one. Israel’s government offices are nowhere near the ancient religious sites. Neither is the US Embassy, nor those of other countries. Recognizing that Israel, like every other sovereign state, has the right to choose its capital, foreign embassies should naturally be located there. Such moves have zero impact on the status of the holy sites.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Welby apologized earlier this year to British Jewry 800 years after the church passed laws that unleashed antisemitism and led to the expulsion of all Jews in 1290.
While that gesture to history was appreciated, the implied slap in the face to the world’s largest Jewish community, 800 years later, is not.
British church leaders had multiple opportunities to denounce the un-Christian behavior of Syrian Catholic Bishop Hilarion Capucci (the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem as well as the titular archbishop of Caesarea for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for smuggling arms to a terrorist organization) or Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna (who in the Second Intifada praised suicide bombers).
Just a few months ago, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Mount Lebanon Mor Theophilus George Saliba fully endorsed the collective guilt of all Jews for the crime of deicide in a public address. Saliba has a long record of anti-Semitic statements. He has blamed Jews for all problems in the Arab world and cited as his source the infamous czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We asked his superior, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East Ignatius Aphrem II, for clarification as to whether this represents the position of his church. His response – silence – speaks for itself.
The sad fact is that too many of the “leaders of churches in the Holy Land” to whom Nichols defers completely embrace the notion of the collective guilt of the Jewish people for the sin of deicide. Linking the biblical word “Jerusalem” to anything Jewish sticks in their craw – as does the existence of a Jewish state. Cardinal Nichols should know that they reject the conclusions of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II that forcefully gave the lie to collective guilt and called anti-Semitism a sin.
Jewish collective guilt is not something that Nichols and Welby support – we hope. Yet we cannot help but worry that their move into the political sphere in the Holy Land to negatively impact the Jewish state – a state that has always protected and will always protect Christians and their rights to pray in their holy sites – may be resurrecting anti-Jewish theological positions that incited discrimination, violence, expulsion, and death of Jews for centuries.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and director of global social action. He also serves as vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.