The funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem turned violent. Photo: Facebook

The scenes from the funeral in Jerusalem on May 13 for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh may not, as some hope, be a turning point in the never-ending struggle between Israel and Palestine.

But the event, and its tragic backdrop, is a reminder of the power of faith and hope, which for centuries has been the very essence of Jerusalem. This should be a wake-up call for the revival of efforts to define the city as a place of peaceful sanctity, instead of a crucible of vicious sectarian strife.

Sadly, over the past two months, Jerusalem’s identity as a multi-cultural haven for Christianity, Judaism and Islam has been under great stress. The intersection of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Jewish Passover and the Easter celebration for Christians could have served as a symbol of this great city’s plural identity and set an example for an increasingly divided world.

At a time when the world is experiencing greater than usual suffering caused by war and humanitarian crisis, leaders of these three culturally connected faiths might have seen fit to deliver common messages of concern and sympathy for the victims of war and displacement globally.

Instead, they fought among themselves, opening old fissures with tragic results. The Jews pressed for access to historical sites they know are flashpoints sacred to other faiths; the Muslims reacted violently; Christians were caught in the middle in a vain effort to worship the stones so sacred to their faith.

What ensued was a familiar cascade of brutal crackdown and violent protest, during which Shireen Abu Akleh was slain in cold blood.

Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Photo: WikiCommons

Jerusalem’s myriad of woes

Everyone knows there is no political or diplomatic solution to this mess. The government of Israel is hostage to extremist Jewish sentiment that rejects Jerusalem’s multi-faith identity; Palestinians, either Christian or Muslim, are dominated by extremist factions that are inching towards a new armed rebellion as they see no hope for negotiation: trouble in Jerusalem or the other occupied territories affects sentiment in Gaza and triggers attacks on Israel. The Christians are beleaguered and caught in the middle: they have no voice.

Is there a way out by other means? Given that the existing multilateral system is on life-support, there is little hope for effective action or sanction by the United Nations; the five members of the security council are at war with one another in all but name, and regional players are consumed with the pursuit of their own narrow interests.

This leaves the civilizational sphere. For many years this has been neglected. Inter-faith dialogue has a bad name – it failed to prevent the emergence of militant religious extremism.

Israel has invested in the so-called Abrahamic Accords, a US-backed bid to bridge the divide with Muslim states. But this is a geopolitical device aimed at securing recognition of Israel, countering Iran and limiting support for Palestinians, it is not a sincere faith-based initiative. We are where we are, but might we start over?

Arguably a fresh approach should assume a hybrid form: a dialogue on faith and civilization backed by states – medium-sized countries like Indonesia and Canada with a track record of pluralism and no strategic stake in the region. Their work would be carried out below the geopolitical radar, perhaps led by discreet mediators, not politicians or diplomats with a lot to lose because their constituencies or governments might come under pressure.

The work would be to frame a clear road map towards establishing Jerusalem as a pilgrim’s city, underpinned by concrete proposals for protecting sacred spaces, promoting tolerance and hammering out principles and protocols for the protection of Jerusalem’s unique role and identity. 

Money for rebuilding and refurbishing the city’s civic space, co-funded by leading religious organizations from all three faiths, would help expand the scope for pilgrimage and serve as a confidence-building mechanism.

A fountain in Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Photo: WikiCommons

Jerusalem should belong to all

Of course, one of the principal obstacles is that Israel insists that Jerusalem is its capital, which challenges the definition of the city’s occupied status in the eyes of the international community. That’s why the notion expressed by one Palestinian writer that “Jerusalem never looked more Palestinian” on the day that Shireen was buried strikes fear in the heart of the Israeli state.

Both are wrong: Jerusalem belongs to every Christian, Jew and Muslim. It deserves to be recognized as a neutral intersection of faith, not a fault line of religious conflict. A few years ago I was moderating a discussion of senior Buddhist clergy from Asia and I asked them why they were so hostile towards Muslims.

Because, they replied, in recent years the Muslim community has retreated behind high walls and hidden themselves from us.

Militant orthodoxy is a poison that corrodes the connections between us. It erects high walls and breeds suspicion and hatred of the other. Peace in Jerusalem must start with the dissolving of these barriers and starting to reconnect divided communities.

This may sound hopelessly unrealistic in the circumstances, but as I watched the funeral procession wind its way out of Jaffa Gate along the old city walls up to Mount Zion, where some of my Greek Jerusalemite relatives are buried too, I somehow saw more hope than despair.

Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and private diplomat and the author of Lives Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant.