The patriarchs also issued an unusual appeal asking for Christianrepresentation at the Camp David summit, should it continue, as well asin any future peace talk forums.
"We appeal to you as foremost political leaders and negotiators toensure that the Christian communities within the walls of the Old Cityare not separated from each other," said the open letter addressed toPresident Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak andPalestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"We regard the Christian and Armenian Quarters of the Old City asinseparable and contiguous entities that are firmly united by the samefaith. Furthermore, we trust that your negotiations will also securethat any arrangement for Jerusalem will ensure that the fundamentalfreedoms for worship and access by all Christians to their holysanctuaries and to their headquarters within the Old City are notimpeded in any way whatsoever."
The letter was signed by Diodoros I, Jerusalem's Greek Orthodoxpatriarch; Michel Sabbah, the Latin (Catholic) patriarch, and byArmenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian II. The three leaders head churchdenominations that represent the overwhelming majority of the estimated12,000 Christians living in Jerusalem, as well the majority ofChristians living in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The letter was apparently triggered by news reports that both Israeland the Palestinian Authority had softened demands for total sovereigntyover the historic Old City, and were now considering some division ofpowers.
According to one plan reportedly being considered by thePalestinians, Israel would continue to control the Jewish Quarter andthe adjacent Armenian Quarter while the Palestinian Authority wouldtake control of the Muslim quarter and the adjacent Christian quarter.
The area known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, and which now contains the Al Aksa and Dome of the Rock mosques, would belong to the Palestinian sphere, while theWestern Wall plaza just below would remain under Israelicontrol.
The Western Wall is the retaining wall of the ancient Jewish Templethat stood on the mount during the era of the Biblical King Herod.
Such a division of the Old City's historic quarters couldpotentially sever Jerusalem's tiny Christian Armenian community of anestimated 2,000 people from the remaining Christian population in theOld City.
In their letter, the Christian leaders suggested that as analternative to the physical division of the Old City, they would preferto see international guarantees ensuring free access by Jews, Muslimsand Christians to their Jerusalem holy places.
"We suggest one possible way of ensuring this peaceful unity andcohesive prosperity of the Christian presence in the Holy City ofJerusalem is through a system of international guarantees that willensure to the three religious communities a quality of right of accessto their respective holy places, of profession of faith and ofdevelopment," the letter said.
"It might well be advisable to have representatives from our threePatriarchates and the Custody of the Holy Land (the Vatican) at the CampDavid summit meeting as much as at any future forum in order to providecontinuity and consultation on our future and on our rights, so that ourone collective presence here with its history of rights and expectationsis maintained unequivocally and safeguarded fully," the letter said.
Observers said that the letter clearly represents an attempt byChristian communities to "close ranks" at a delicate moment in the peaceprocess, when Muslim and Jewish religious concerns, rather than theinterests of the Christian communities, may in fact be the determiningfactor in the success of the Camp David talks.
"The churches are positioning themselves for any eventuality," saidRabbi David Rosen, head of the Israel Office of the Anti-DefamationLeague.
Still, it is highly unlikely that either Israel or the Palestinianswill grant Christians, or any other religious group, separaterepresentation in their peace delegation or in summit talks, he said.
"I think that there have been talks between religious leaders onwhat kind of constructive role they can play after a politicalsettlement. But neither Israel, nor the Palestinian political leadershiphave an interest in introducing religious authority into the politicalnegotiations," said Rosen.