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Why Jerusalem is so important to Muslims, Christians and Jews

A view of Jerusalem’s Old City is seen on Tuesday. (Oded Balilty/AP)

A version of this piece was originally published Dec. 6, 2017.

JERUSALEM — The U.S. will move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that prompted fears it could spark protests in Palestinian areas and across the Muslim world.

For decades, most of the international community, including the United States, has declined to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until a peace deal could be reached between Israelis and Palestinians, since both sides claim the city as a capital. The newest debates threaten to revive decades of controversy over international borders, possible peace deals and land claims.

The conversation about Jerusalem is also, inevitably, a conversation about faith — and, specifically, about control of some of the holiest sites to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The geography is stark. At the center of Jerusalem, in an area about twice the size of the Mall in Washington sit three major holy sites: the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in the world for Muslims; the Western Wall, part of the holiest site in the world for Jews; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the place where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected.

To understand what’s going on in Jerusalem right now, it’s essential to understand why the city feels so crucial at this moment to Muslims, Jews and many Christians.

How did all of these holy sites end up in one place?

It depends on whom you ask. Jerusalem is central to the geography and events of the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible has, in various ways, exerted profound influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Between 587 B.C. and A.D. 70, Jews built — and then saw destroyed — two temples in Jerusalem that were the center of their religious and communal life. Nearly 2,000 years later, Jerusalem and the Temple remain central to traditional Jewish thought and prayer.

Around the world, Jews pray facing Jerusalem. Jewish rabbinical teachings hold that when the Messiah comes, the temple will be rebuilt. Today, one of the old retaining walls of the Temple — called the Western Wall — is a principal worship site for Jews.

For Christians, Jerusalem is also the place where Jesus preached, died and was resurrected. Many also see the city as central to an imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Jerusalem is now a major pilgrimage site for Christians from around the world.

For Muslims, Jerusalem is a site of key events in the life of Jesus and other important figures. It’s also the spot where, according to traditional interpretations of the Koran and other texts, the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Mohammed was carried from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then from Jerusalem into the heavens, where he conversed with prophets before returning to earth. For more than 1,300 years, there have been Muslim shrines in Jerusalem.

Who actually controls the holy sites?

It’s complicated. Between 1948, when Israel became a state, and 1967, control of Jerusalem was split, with Israel controlling West Jerusalem and Jordan controlling East Jerusalem, including the Old City major holy sites. In 1967, after a war with Jordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab states, Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem and annexed it, razing the buildings in front of the Western Wall and creating a plaza to accommodate tourists and worshipers.

The international community does not recognize Israel’s jurisdiction over this territory, and much of the Old City’s population is Palestinian. The entire Old City, including its Muslim holy sites, is now within the broader area where Israel exercises final control.

However, the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the entire area Muslims call Haram al-Sharif (many English speakers may know it as the Temple Mount) are administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf — a Muslim religious organization, overseen by the Jordanian government, that handles security and exercises considerable authority over the area. Israeli attempts to exercise additional authority in the area are interpreted by many Muslims as a threat. For example, when, earlier this year, Israel tried to install metal detectors at the entrances to Haram al-Sharif, there were mass protests, and the government eventually backed off.

The Israeli government and a group of powerful Orthodox rabbis — who are themselves controversial within the Jewish world — exercise direct control over the Western Wall, which sits at the foot of the Temple Mount.

A complicated coalition of Christian groups exercise day-to-day authority over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Does Trump’s announcement change any of these arrangements?

In the short term, it shouldn’t. The larger question is about who will control Jerusalem in the future — and about how the city could be partitioned in a peace deal. Will it be split up? Will one side get all the city, or most of the city? Will it be an international zone?

For many people, those are questions with deep religious implications. To some ears, Trump’s decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital offers support for one Israeli vision of Jerusalem as the “eternal and united” capital of Israel. That may sound like a peaceful, hopeful vision of the future. It could also sound like an outcome in which a future Palestinian state does not have jurisdiction over any part of Jerusalem, or in which Israel exercises much more control over the city and its Muslim holy sites — which, for many devout Muslims, is unacceptable.

Will the change make some religious Jews and Christians happy?

Yes. Many — but not all — Israeli Jews have expressed support for Trump’s decision. So have many evangelicals, the religious group in the United States that is most likely to be supportive of Israel. In the summer, Vice President Pence told the annual conference of Christians United for Israel, the country’s largest Christian pro-Israel group, “this president stands with you. And I promise you that the day will come when President Donald Trump moves the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is not a question of if, it is only when.”

For some evangelicals, the return of large numbers of Jews to Israel in the past 150 years is evidence of divine action in history, and even a sign of the impending Second Coming of Jesus. Other evangelicals, often drawing on specific verses from the Bible, cite a religious obligation to support the Jewish people. The outcome is many evangelicals support more hawkish policies on Israel.

Not all Christian leaders are happy, though: Pope Francis voiced “deep concern” over Trump’s decision.

Why can’t everyone just share the holy sites?

The geography is extraordinarily difficult. The starkest illustration of just how complicated it gets involves the site of the Temple: Many Jews dream of one day seeing the Temple rebuilt. The land where it would go is precisely where the Dome of the Rock stands today.

Still, while Jerusalem’s history is a test-case in religious violence, it’s also a laboratory of pluralism. For better or for worse, few cities can boast such religious diversity. The question now is whether Trump’s announcement will tip whatever pluralistic balance exists today.

This post has been updated.