JERUSALEM, July 25 (AP)--Leaders of three Christian churches in Jerusalem asked Israel Tuesday to ensure that free access to Jerusalem holy places would be guaranteed in any peace treaty with the Palestinians.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, a cleric from the militant group Hamas said the Camp David summit presents the worst threat to Palestine in 100 years, and said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be violating Muslim law if he makes concessions to Israel.

At a meeting with Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic) and Armenian Patriarchs said the churches want international guarantees that Christians, Muslims and Jews will be able to visit and worship at their holy shrines.

``We are worried about free access, that all religions can come to pray at all places of worship at any time in any circumstance,'' said Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah.

The meeting at the Greek Othodox Patriarchate inside Jerusalem's walled Old City was held at the request of the churches, said Beilin's spokesman, Amir Abramovitz.

On Monday, the patriarchs met with Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and a joint statement was issued calling for Palestinian sovereignty over traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, including the walled Old City, where the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places are situated.

After Tuesday's meeting with Beilin, the churches refrained from taking the Arab side in such an explicit manner. ``We want peace and reconciliation between the two peoples and the three religions,'' said Sabah, reading a joint statement.

The Palestinians want to establish their capital in east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City. Israel has long insisted that the entire city remain under Israeli sovereignty.

In the Camp David talks, Israel has reportedly offered the Palestinians autonomy and ``characteristics'' of sovereignty in some Arab neighborhoods, but not inside the Old City

The churches were alarmed by reports of a compromise proposal in which the Palestinians would be given sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, while Israel would retain sovereignty over the Jewish and Armenian quarters, which would in a sense split the Christian community.

``Jerusalem should be shared and not divided,'' Sabah said.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Sheik Hamed el-Bitawi, an Islamic cleric from the militant Hamas group, issued a fatwa--or Muslim religious edict--saying that Palestine consists not only of the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also the entire territory of Israel, and Arafat does not have the right to compromise on this.

``Palestine and Jerusalem, from the (Mediterranean) Sea to the (Jordan) River, is an Arab and Islamic land...and it is forbidden to concede it or any part of it,'' the fatwa said.

``Liberating Palestine and Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and returning a million refugees will be achieved not by negotiations but by a holy war,'' it said.

Bitawi told a news conference that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes and any Palestinian who accepts financial compensation instead ``will be considered as one who has sold his homeland.''

Hamas has been fighting the peace process with Israel since the 1993 Oslo interim accords. Scores of Israelis have been killed in bomb attacks by Hamas suicide bombers in Israeli cities. On Monday, the Jerusalem joined with Palestinian officials to issue a joint statement Monday calling for Palestinian sovereignty over traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, including the walled Old City.

The future of the city--holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews--is the most volatile issue in dispute at the Camp David peace summit. East Jerusalem was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.

``The Old City is part of east Jerusalem. All of east Jerusalem...is Palestinian. The ancient, authentic, continued Christian presence and life here is part of our identity and of the Palestinian reality,'' said the statement, published after a gathering of the Christian and Palestinian leaders.

The statement was issued by local leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches and Palestinian officials including Faisel Husseini, the highest ranking Palestinian official in Jerusalem.

Most Catholics and Orthodox church members here are ethnic Palestinians and leaders of both have long supported Palestinian claims. Armenians are a separate ethnic group and constitute just a few thousand individuals in Jerusalem.

The statement expressed their joint opposition to any shared Israeli-Palestinian control of Jerusalem's walled Old City which houses the city's holiest religious shrines.

Even the most dovish Israelis insist on control of the Jewish quarter, and the Western Wall, the remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed in 70 A.D. that attracts hundreds of thousands of Jewish worshippers each year.

The statement said the Palestinians would guarantee freedom of access to all holy sites. Israel has noted that Jordan denied Jews access from 1948-1967, when it controlled the Old City, and that Palestinian authorities encouraged the systematic harassment of Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in the 1920s and 1930s.

A majority 15 centuries ago, Christians, whose ranks have been steadily thinned by conquest, conversion and emigration, today make up only 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land.

On Sunday Pope John Paul II urged the creation of a special international status for the holy sites of Jerusalem. He said that only world oversight can safeguard all the ancient city's religions.

The participation at the meeting of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah--the highest-ranking Roman Catholic in the region--appeared to contradict the Vatican's support of an international status for the Old City.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad