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I. Murzaku: Jerusalem and the Holy Sites: A Call for Peace at a Time of Crisis

Address to a conference on
"Jerusalem and the Holy Sites: A Call for Peace at a Time of Crisis"
Jerusalem, January 11-13, 2015

City as the locus of dialogue

Cities are the locus of human diversity; their policies, structures and institutions can significantly contribute to fostering cohesive, stimulating, safe and fulfilled communities.

What are cities designed for?

The city fulfills the needs, gives meaning and addresses much wider requirements of human existence. Cities represent and create a climate of values that implicitly define how people understand themselves and others. There are two fundamental Latin concepts of the city: 1. as urbe, or city – understood as a physical shared-living space; and 2. as civitas, social body of the cives, or citizens, united by law and shared responsibilities and rights; citizens who are interdependent. What is important in this definition if not designation of the city is the sharing but also combining of energies, differences of ages, cultures, ethnicities, communities and religions. Are all these qualifications of combining and sharing enough to make a good city?

Previously the sacred was located primarily in the monasteries, in rural monastic communities who fled the city, fuga mundi, to recreate the Garden of Eden. As the empire in the West declined, power and population began to move from the countryside to the cities: from the Garden of Eden to New Jerusalem. Medieval citizens made the heavenly Jerusalem (Book of Revelation, Chapter 21) a model of urban planning.[i] Mendicant orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans had preaching churches, which opened into large central places and were surrounded by the city.[ii] It was the beginning of the piazzas as a public shared space for intermingling and intensive communication. Italy defended the ideal that city life with citizens living in concord was as much a way to God as monastic life.[iii] These two currents converged in the “revival” of urban life.

St. Augustine says at the start of his City of God (Book 1, Preface) that the earthly city is marked by libido dominandi –lust of rule, power and glory. Rome epitomized the earthly-contradictory city infected by vainglory and pride. However, this is a critique of the late and corrupt Imperial Roman Empire, an empire rotten from within, and of the Romans who had placed their faith in false divinities and gods who were pure human inventions. Moreover, Augustine’s critique was of the Romans’ love of glory and reputation:

At that time it was their greatest ambition either to die bravely or to live free; but when liberty was obtained, so great a desire of glory took possession of them, that liberty alone was not enough unless domination also should be sought, their great ambition being that which the same poet puts into the mouth of Jupiter…[iv]

Instead, in the De Civitate Dei, Augustine uses his model of love to explain the origin of the two cities. The loves to which he appeals are not ephemeral; they are essential focuses of the inhabitants of the two cities. The City of God consists of those who glory in God and love God rightly. Its members are unified by their love of God, a love that rejoices in a common and immutable good –a love that makes “one heart out of many.” Consequently, the true city for St. Augustine was the community of believers who are destined to become the City of God. St. Augustine, while far from indifferent to the moral foundations of places like the city, defended a legitimate place for the secular realm within a Christian interpretation of the world as the theatre of God’s actions. Thus scholars suggest that the vocation of the human city is to strive to become a trace of the civitas Dei.[v] While Augustine was neither a city planner nor a political theorist, he redeemed an urban culture in crisis by using the city as a metaphor for Heaven and the spiritual goal for the earthly inhabitants.[vi]

Jerusalem, the Apocalyptic City

One of the most fascinating religious narratives of the New Testament is the visionary view of the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven to earth. This vision is to be found in the Book of Revelation: “One of the seven angels came to speak to me and said: Come here and I will show you the bride that the Lamb has married. In the spirit, he carried me to the top of a very high mountain, and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God.”[vii] In contrast with Babylon, the Harlot, stands the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the spouse, coming down from heaven. The author describes the Holy City using a variety of literary devices. The description is similar to the deep impressions a pilgrim might have when she approaches the holiest of cities: first, from afar, she sees its luminosity; as she comes closer she can distinguish the city’s walls and the gates, and when closer still the city’s foundation stones. And once inside the Holy City, the pilgrim is able to assess the size and richness of its walls and foundation stones and gates; and she is mesmerized by the brightness that shines from the glory of God upon this city.

However, the new city of Jerusalem is the accomplishment of the prophecy of Isaiah chapters 65 and 66: it is God’s paradisiacal garden, gigantic, glorious, precious and a city of light which was lit by the radiant glory of God, with the throne of God in the city’s center, and all nations will worship him; God as the spring of life has been extended to all nations and people. This is the promise of the city of peace: New Jerusalem. For John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation, God’s presence is in and for all of the city and its citizens and there is no separation between the holy and the profane, and people who worship Him “will see him face to face.” In fact, John’s wild dream speaks of a city from God, by God and with God. The New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation is the goal of human history. Jerusalem is to be a model for what life with God is intended to be: a new earth. Yerushaláyim is apocalyptic.[viii] In the New Jerusalem there is no Holy Place where the presence of God is exclusive and excluding. God lives in the city. He is part of and central to the city, embracing the city, embracing the people who live in the city and those who go there in pilgrimage. Thus, the focus according to the Book of Revelation is not on holy places and their exclusivity and belonging to one community, but on people and their inter relations, people’s dialogue with God. Thus the city in general, and Jerusalem in particular, should serve their designated roles as urbe and loci where cives meet and communicate with God and with one another. This is what the Book of Revelation evokes with its expressive images of New Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: A Triple-Holy City in religious narratives

The holy city of Jerusalem is the center of religious sites of the three monotheistic or Abrahamic religions. It is one city that three religious families, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, turn to and call home. The Abrahamic religions derive their entire spiritual existence from and have one God in the center; however, this God is called and experienced –by the Jews praying at the Western Wall, the Muslims at the Temple Mount and the members of a variety of Christian denominations praying in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. In this way, Jerusalem is the subject of three different religious narratives and two concurring national narratives –all of them generally understood to be mutually exclusive. Jews consider the biblical Mount Moriah, today known as the Temple Mount, to be the holiest place on earth. First mentioned in the book of Genesis, Jews consider the Temple Mount to be the place where they are closest to God. It is the place where David’s son, King Solomon, built the first temple, also known as Solomon’s Temple. After the destruction by the Babylonians, the Second Temple was built there and reached its most magnificent form during the reign of King Herod. Both temples have been the center of Jewish life and the sanctity remained with the site after their devastation. In today’s daily practice Jews are urged not to step on the Temple Mount. That is why they pray on the Western Wall, a relic of Herod’s massive retaining wall, to get as close as possible to the place where the Holy Temple stood.

The Christian narrative about Jerusalem is based on two central elements: The life and the death of Jesus Christ. Viewed as the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus Christ is the central figure in Christianity and spent several years of his lifetime in and around Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City marks the place of Jesus Christ’s grave. The Holy Sepulcher in the Old City is the final destination on the Via Dolorosa, which traces Christ’s journey with the Cross from Pontius Pilate’s –the Roman governor’s –house to the place of his Crucifixion.

For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina, although Jerusalem is not specifically mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. However, several passages from the Holy Qur’an are interpreted to refer to the holy city of Jerusalem.[ix] Early on in the history of Islam, during the entire Meccan period and the first 16 months of the Madinah period, Muslims prayed facing the holy city of Jerusalem. Thus, Jerusalem was the first qibla (direction of prayer) of Islam.[x] Moreover, the Temple Mount is assumed to be the destination of Mohammad’s Night Journey, the Isra’, that started from Mecca, and the Dome of the Rock is supposed to be the place of Mohammed’s ascension to heaven afterwards, called Mi’raj. Muhammad’s Night Journey and his subsequent visit to heaven took place from the very rock from which Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son, Noah rested his ship, and Jesus ascended to heaven. Moreover, prophets David, Solomon and Jesus, who are also revered prophets in the Holy Qur’an, have all special connections to the holy city of Jerusalem. Today the Al-Aqsa mosque is the site of Islam’s third holiest shrine. The Jewish as well as the Muslim claims on Jerusalem are not only of religious character, but also of political, geographic, economic and cultural nature. Both communities seize the city as a symbol of national identity and inalienable rights.

Why is the Triple-Holy City of Jerusalem the perfectly designed locus for Trialogue?

Theoretically, what makes a good city is going beyond the sharing to enabling and empowering the citizens’ aspirations to grow, to flourish rather than being repressed or limited to self-indulgence. More importantly, what makes a good city is the sense of belonging of its citizens, where people do not merely co-exist but truly belong. The sense of belonging is fundamental to people’s sense of happiness and well-being. So the good city should be people-centered. The good city is a spiritual city serving the human spirit of its citizens and what enhances and fulfills the human spirit for good sharing and co-existence.

Good spiritual cities go beyond forbearance and are grounded in the conception of sharing a Good Life, directing themselves to communion, friendship and mutual assistance –to positive-active tolerance as a social virtue. A good city is the city where its diverse, multicultural and multiethnic citizens are not simply and passively tolerated, basically for prudential or opportunist purposes and not on principle. Instead, a good city is an actively tolerant city and most importantly is a hospitable city which recognizes and respects all people.

Hospitality implies and demands genuine relationship with those that are different; it means moving out of the comfort zone and being open to change because of the encounter with those who are different. How should we treat our neighbors –especially those that are different from us? Should gentile Christians be expected to keep kosher, as brothers and sisters with Jewish roots continue to do? (Rom. 14:13-15). St. Paul provides an answer to this question, which can be applied in the modern city, saying that although it is not necessary, it might be helpful so as not “to put stumbling blocks or hindrance in the way of another.” St. Paul strongly urged his readers to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building.”

The hospitable-spiritual city is the place of encounter, of ecumenism and inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue; it is a place where people not only share space but receive one another. It is a place rooted in relationships of its citizens. When those relationships are cultivated through intentional acts of private or public kindness, they provide a fertile seedbed in which civil institutional initiatives for cooperation and reconciliation can grow. This leads to another qualification of the city, the ecumenical city which is hospitable to diversity and which aims for unity, thus furthering reconciliation, peace and forgiveness.

Peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6)

How can Jerusalem’s religions contribute to the peace of Jerusalem? Religion constitutes a part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, since religion is part of the problem, it can also potentially be part of the solution. The capacity of religion has never really been taken into account during the countless attempts to solve conflicts, although the peaceful concepts of coexistence and dialogue that exist in Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the key to solving the political question. The real conflict carried out in and about Jerusalem during the last decades has never predominantly been about religion. The crucial struggle has been about national aspirations on both sides and therefore is mostly one about power and control over territory. Religion and religious sites are not at the core of the conflict. Instead, religion is exploited as the justification for strengthening political-ethnical and national claims.

Why does this happen? Religion is emotionally charged and it touches people in a much more emotive way than political, national or ethnical arguments. Religions are exploited because of this emotional and highly sensitive element. When analyzing this phenomenon from a political science perspective, the exploitation of religion may simply be considered as an act of political craftsmanship in which religion is merely one tool among many. Thus, religion is used as a tool to divide rather than to unite, deployed by those who wish to solidify support for their own positions, whose politics are “hijacking religion.”[xi] More importantly, God, who is central to the Abrahamic religions, and who holds a central place in the city of Jerusalem, becomes a dividing and an exclusive God.

Moreover, the lack of in-depth knowledge of the Holy Scriptures among a large number of believers in all the Abrahamic faiths –the Qur’an and the Hebrew and Christian Bibles –leads to misinterpretations. Mixing religious fervor with power politics –counterparts of the political cynics who exploit religious belief –is also appealing to extremist religious leaders. In combining preaching with political postulations they try to gain influence in political issues and thus contribute to the exploitation of religion.

Consequently, the average believer who has little or no knowledge of the Scriptures heavily depends on what religious leaders preach and usually follows the misreading or the misinterpretations, and is largely unaware of any inaccuracy. Because religious authorities reach a broad audience, the consequences of such behavior are far-reaching. It is quite self-evident that the outlined behaviors influence the Jewish and Muslim narrative on Jerusalem in a way that does not contribute positively to a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What is to be done? Firstly: It is necessary to explore a vision of a peaceful Jerusalem and to analyze the positive and constructive side of religious practice. This requires a careful reading of the Holy Scriptures –the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an –and other primary source materials. If such a reading of these texts –many of which are “virgin territory” –were to bring together high-ranking religious leaders of the three monotheistic faiths, the result would be a “mine field” for productive conversations. Secondly: It is also necessary to walk the educational path together. It is of critical importance to work together with educators and academics as they educate the community for peace. Through these channels a broader audience can be reached and exposed to an informed, honest and authentic message of mutual respect and cooperation.

The Peaceful City – Educating for forgiveness and peace

The future of the younger generations can be changed, but not the past. The fruits of collaboration and openness among people of different religions and ethnicities will come in their own good time. One will reap where another has sown. So our imminent duty today as scholars, educators, church leaders and political activists is to sow the seeds of active tolerance and openness and, most importantly, to make education and instruction in different faiths a priority. It is imperative to educate today’s youth for peace and to teach them respect for the other. There are many places today where children and young adults are taught at an early age to distrust or even hate those who are different. Ecumenical and inter-religious education should start from birth. Ecumenical public education is also important. Educators and families must find ways of actively practicing ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue where communities actually build together instead of fighting. There are ways to find and encourage mixed communities to build together. This is a way that can potentially help these mixed communities mitigate or prevent violence. If members of these communities can see that building the community is more important than destroying each other, then they will realize that by destroying the other they are destroying themselves. I think what would be a very helpful move, in addition to education, is providing some kind of development assistance to these communities: To encourage diverse citizens to actually put in action their commitment to live together. Education and active participation should go hand in hand. Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success –as one of America’s foremost industrialists, Henry Ford, stated. The reconciling aspects of religious narratives therefore has to be guided to reach and change people’s minds. The power of change lies in education that has to take place in schools and universities, as well as in Synagogues, Mosques and Churches.


In conclusion, I am very grateful for the invitation to participate in this Universal Peace Federation consultation and thank this organization for its persistence and insistence in exploring the positive impact of religion in peace building. Change will come only if a broad range of socialization agents: education, religion, academics and religious leaders, synchronize their collective efforts for peace and moderation.


Dr. A. Ines Murzaku, Chair and Professor, Department of Catholic Studies, Seton Hall University, U.S.A. is Professor of Ecclesiastical History and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. A specialist in Byzantine and Catholic Church history, Dr. Murzaku teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on Church History and Theology focusing on Mediterranean Christianity, Monasticism, Eastern Christianity and Ecumenism. She has won prestigious grants including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant, and has three times been a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. She is the author of several books on religious topics.


[i] Sheldrake, Philip, “Placing the Sacred: Transcendence and the City,” in Literature and Theology, Vol. 21, No. 3, September 2007, p. 248.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., p. 249.

[iv] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 5, Chapter 12. Accessed on February 2, 2015,

[v] Sheldrake, Philip, op. cit., p. 246.

[vi] Mayernik, David, Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy, Westview Press, 2003, Boulder, Colorado, p. 6.

[vii] Book of Revelation, Chapter 21:9-22, 5.

[viii] Rosica, Thomas, “The New Jerusalem, Coming Down Out of Heaven from God,”, accessed on January 7, 2015.

[ix] Dajani, Munther, “Muslim Attachment to Jerusalem (Al Quds Al-Sharif),” in Religious Narratives on Jerusalem and their Role in Peace Building, Proceedings of an interreligious conference held October 20th, 2009 in Jerusalem, p. 41, accessed on March 2, 2015,

[x] Ibid., p. 42.

[xi] Amari, Christiane, “Religious Narratives on Jerusalem: Potential for Moderation in the Tense Relationship between Religion and Politics?” in Religious Narratives on Jerusalem and their Role in Peace Building, Proceedings of an interreligious conference held October 20th, 2009 in Jerusalem, p. 18, accessed on March 2, 2015,