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Hashemite Custodianship of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem is more than a century old

Jordan has been protecting the historic status quo for all churches in Jerusalem, as well as Muslim sites

A view of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Jonathan Feldstein’s Jan. 2 article in ALL ISRAEL NEWS is a hodgepodge of ignorance, spin, misinformation and wishful thinking.

In the article, entitled: Jordan’s king claims to protect Christians in the Middle East... But does he?, Feldstein writes: He repeated a baseless claim he’s made before, that, as the Muslim Hashemite leader, he’s custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites. In fact, he’s not. Jordan’s custodianship only applies to Islamic sites …The king’s warning about protecting the 'status quo' in Jerusalem undermines the rights of Jews and Christians …”

In fact, the Hashemite Custodianship of the Islamic and Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem is over a century old. The Hashemite Custodianship has been acknowledged by, among others, the European Union, the United States, Pope Francis, all the primates of the Anglican Church (including H.G. the Archbishop of Canterbury); the patriarch of Russia; the president of the World Lutheran Federation, all the Christian church leaders of Jerusalem (including the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem); the State of Palestine; the Arab people of Jerusalem and of Palestine; the 22 countries of the Arab League; the 56 countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); Russia; Turkey; H.M. King Mohammed VI of Morocco (who is also the Head of the OIC Jerusalem Committee), and the Director General of UNESCO.

Established in 1917, it is a unique historical institution that guarantees the rights of Muslims and Christians to worship in their own holy sites and preserve their own distinct religious and cultural identities, thereby enabling and maintaining the fragile peace between religions in the Holy Land.

A Whitepaper on the Hashemite Custodianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian Holy Sites that supports these claims with facts and figures can be downloaded for free here.

It brings to light the significance of the historic "status quo" and the Hashemite Custodianship, which guarantees the rights of churches to their Holy Sites and the protection and support of the rights of all denominations in the Holy Land. Under Islamic law, Christians have an inviolable right to worship in their churches; the Hashemite Custodianship preserves and guarantees those rights. It represents the continuity of the historic status quo that all churches of Jerusalem, whether those which were existent since the time of the Pact of Omar, 1,400 years ago, or those established in later centuries, have enjoyed in terms of Sultanic or Royal accreditation.

The historic status quo protecting the Holy  Sites  in Jerusalem has existed before the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967. This arrangement was originally established in 1852 CE, when the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid issued an edict (firman) freezing claims by religious communities in Jerusalem and Bethlehem to Christian holy places and forbidding any construction or alterations to their existing status. Moreover, the Hashemite Custodianship guarantees and maintains Christian church courts, whereby Christians determine and apply their own laws of personal status, marriage, divorce and inheritance. This is a unique arrangement that gives Christians their own religious and cultural independence and safeguards their Christian identity. This is also applied in Jordan. During the period 1948 - 1967 Jewish places of worship in Jerusalem were also protected by the Hashemite Custodianship of the Holy Places in Jerusalem.

Feldstein then writes: “King Abdullah spoke of the shrinking number of Christians in the region, noting that the number is dropping under “pressure.” He didn’t say it outright, but the pressure to which he was referring is supposedly from Israel. But that too is false … Israel released demographics showing a 2% increase in the Christian population in Israel … In fact, the actual pressure on Christians comes from the wider Islamic society in which they live … But if the king is concerned about the well-being of Christians in the region, he should start in Jordan itself … His saccharine words, 'we are committed to defending the rights, the precious heritage and historic identity of Christians of our region,' were so sweet I wanted to gag.”

First of all, the 2% increase in the Christian population in Israel is not that of indigenous Arab Christians who have been in this region even before Muslims and are the oldest Christian community in the world. The native Christian population in Arab lands are not strangers, nor colonialists, nor foreigners. They are the natives of these lands and Arabs, just as Muslims are.

Second, Christians have been targeted in certain Arab countries since the beginning of ‘the Arab Spring’. Muslims reject this completely and categorically. They reject it as Muslims, according to Islamic sacred law (Shari’ah).They reject it morally, as fellow Arabs and fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen. They reject it as neighbors and friends. And they reject it as human beings.

Third, H.M. King Abdullah’s ‘saccharine’ words are not lip service. In 2013 he convened a high-level conference in Amman entitled The Challenges Facing Arab Christians. King Abdullah united the leadership of Arab Christian churches and gave voice to their challenges and together possible solutions were discussed. Indeed, Jordan has a no-visa rule for Christians coming into Jordan from Iraq and Syria. And Christians in Jordan enjoy, by law, 8% of the seats in parliament and similar quotas at every level of government. They also enjoy their own personal status laws and church courts. Their Holy Sites and legal educational institutes and other needs are safeguarded by the state. Christians prosper today in Jordan as they have for the last 2,000 years in peace and harmony, and with goodwill and genuine brotherly relations between them and their Muslim neighbors. It is true that Christians used to be more numerous in Jordan than they are now, but declining Christian birth rates and high levels of education (which have led to their being in demand as immigrants to the West) are what have reduced their numbers.

Fourth, on the same day Feldstein made these baseless claims, media reports documented the desecration by Jewish extremists of over 30 graves in the Jerusalem Protestant Cemetery which was founded in 1848 and is maintained by the local Lutheran and Anglican communities (see here). The desecration included breaking crosses, pushing over headstones, and smashing iconography. Among the graves desecrated was that of the second Protestant bishop of Jerusalem. The cemetery also endured a similar attack in 2013.

It is worth mentioning here that the Israeli media and Jerusalem churches recorded more than 60 similar so-called price tag attacks against Christian holy sites, bishops, cemeteries, religious celebrations and pilgrims during the last decade. 

Attacks on the Christian community in Jerusalem by Jewish extremists have been on the rise. In December 2020 an Israeli man attempted to burn down the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives. In 2021, a Monastery of the Romanian Church, situated west of Jerusalem  endured four vandalism attempts during a single month. The vandals destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary and smashed stained-glass windows. In December 2021, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem warned of a “systemic attempt” to drive Christians out of Jerusalem. In a statement released in April 2022, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers warned: “The actions of radical groups who are able to act with impunity directly threaten the religious freedom of the Christian community in Jerusalem and undermine the rich history of interfaith cooperation within the City.”

This rich history goes back to the time of the Caliph Omar. Historically, Muslim and Christian Arabs have been one indivisible society, sharing  bonds of friendship and partnership in Arab lands. Arab Christians have always played an immense role on all levels and in all fields in building their countries, and in defending them against all who have attacked them. Arab Christians have always been the support and reinforcement of Arab Muslims against foreign aggression. This has been true since the Prophet’s own lifetime when, during the Battle of Mu’tah, Arab Christian tribes fought alongside the Prophet’s army against the Byzantines.

Feldstein then displays his blatant ignorance of Islam and Muslims: “One of the most 'remarkable' comments King Abdullah made – that Islam reveres Jesus as messiah – is not just a false statement, but such a stretch. Not only is that not the truth, but it’s such a stretch, it’d be surprising if the king didn’t have to walk it back for fear of being branded a heretic.”

Allah says in the Qur’an:

The Messenger believes in what was revealed to him from his Lord, and the believers; each one believes in God and His angels, and in His Books, and His messengers, ‘we make no distinction between any of His messengers’. And they say, ‘We hear and obey; Your forgiveness, our Lord; to You is the homecoming’. (Al-Baqarah, 2: 285)

Islam holds a special reverence for all the Prophets and Messengers of God — starting with Jesus Christ himself, whom Islam venerates as .... the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is a Messenger of God and His Word which he cast unto Mary and a Spirit from Him.... (Al-Nisa’, 4:171). Other Prophets and Saints of God such as Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, David, Solomon, Zechariah and John, and the Blessed Virgin Mary are sacred personages in Islam. They are, in fact, regarded as free of sin, including David and Solomon, who are regarded as perfect prophets, not merely as wise kings.

So all the reasons that Judaism and Christianity have to regard Jerusalem as holy are also part of what makes it holy to Muslims. This is particularly so for Jerusalem’s association with Jesus Christ, whom Muslims actually do recognize as the Messiah, and about whom the Prophet Muhammad said:

‘Whoever testifies that there is no god but God, Alone, with no partner, that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger, and that Jesus is the servant of God and His Messenger and a Word that He cast into Mary and a Spirit from Him, and that heaven is real and hellfire is real will enter heaven whatever his [or her] actions (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab Ahadith Al-Anbiya’)

Feldstein’s continues in his article: “Sitting on the east bank of the Jordan River, the king said this [where Jesus was baptized] was the third holiest site in Christianity. I asked many Christian friends if this was true and, if so, what the first and second most holy Christian sites were. Without exception, all said that a ranking of such sites is disingenuous, and if it were legitimate, there are other sites that would be in contention for third place, fourth, fifth and even sixth, ahead of the king’s claimed 'third place.'”

In a Nov. 15, 2006 letter to H.M. King Abdullah II, The Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexy II wrote in a letter of authentication of the Baptism Site in Bethany Beyond the Jordan: (see here)

The Gospel according to St. John tells us that Our Lord’s Baptism took place  ‘in Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing’ (John 1:28) … Christians have a deep reverence for all the places connected with the earthly life of Jesus Christ. This is why this bank and waters of the Jordan River blessed by the footsteps of Our Lord are as dear to us as the Grotto in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is up to Christians, and more precisely, Christian clerics, to decide what their Holy Sites are and in what order of significance they are, not the random ‘Christian friends’ of Jonathan Feldstein.

Recognition of the authentic location of the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ on the Eastern Bank of the Jordan River was recognized by all members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2015, when the site was inscribed into the World Heritage List. This recognition can be seen in letters of authentication from the Heads of Christians Churches.(see here).

And a Whitepaper on the Authentic Baptism Site of Jesus Christ can be downloaded for free here.

Some of letters of authentication include: The Romanian Patriarchate; the Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites; the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Armenian Patriarch; the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East; His Holiness the Coptic Pope; the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Patriarch of Axum, Archbishop of Axum; the Archbishop of Canterbury. Moreover, in the last twenty years since the rediscovery of the Baptism Site in 1995, three Popes of the Holy See have made pilgrimages to Bethany Beyond the Jordan: Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

Mr. Feldstein then writes an outright lie: “Then again, with Islam’s third holiest site being in Jerusalem but never once mentioned in the Quran, perhaps his use of the term is deliberately vague.” 

It seems Feldstein is perpetuating Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s lie when he took out an advertisement in the New York Times on April 17, 2010, saying that Jerusalem is not named in the Qur’an but named six hundred times in the Bible. As the quotes from the Holy Qur’an below show, ‘Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa’ in Jerusalem is referred to in the Qur’an. And according to the classical commentaries on the Qur’an, ‘the city’, ‘the land’, ‘the Holy Land’, ‘the Mount’, and ‘the Olive’ all refer to Jerusalem, or places in Jerusalem. Jerusalem as such may be named 600 times in the Bible, but is not named once in the Torah, as shown by biblical concordance.

Allah says in the Qur’an:

Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque (Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa); the environs of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. Indeed He is the Hearer, the Seer. / And We gave Moses the Scripture, and made it a guidance for the Children of Israel [saying] that they should not choose beside Me any guardian. / [They were] descendants of those whom We carried with Noah. Indeed he was a grateful servant. / And We decreed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: ‘You shall indeed work corruption in the land, twice and you shall indeed become great tyrants’. (Al-Isra’, 17: 1–4)

And when We said, ‘Enter this city, and eat freely therein wherever you will, and enter it at the gate prostrating, and say, ‘exoneration’, and We shall forgive you your transgressions and We shall give more to those who are virtuous’. (Al-Baqarah, 2:58)

And when We made a covenant with you, and We raised above you the Mount, ‘Take forcefully what We have given you, and remember what is in it so that you might preserve yourselves’. (Al-Baqarah, 2:63)

And when We made a covenant with you, and raised over you the Mount, ‘Take forcefully what We have given you, and listen’, they said, ‘We hear and disobey’; and they were made to drink the calf in their hearts on account of their unbelief. Say: ‘Evil is that which your belief enjoins on you, if you are believers’. (Al-Baqarah, 2:93)

And We raised above them the Mount, by the covenant with them, and We said to them, ‘Enter the gate, bowing’; and We said to them, ‘Transgress not the Sabbath, and We took from them a firm covenant. (Al-Nisa’, 4:154)

O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has ordained for you, and do not turn back in flight, or you will end up as losers’. (Al-Ma’idah, 5:21)

And We decreed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: ‘You shall indeed work corruption in the land, twice and you shall indeed become great tyrants’. / So when the time for the first of the two [prophecies] came, We roused against you servants of Ours of great might, who ransacked [your] habitations, and it was a promise fulfilled. / Then We gave you back the turn, [to prevail] over them, and We aided you with children and wealth, and made you greater in number. / ‘If you are virtuous, you are being virtuous to your own souls, and if you do evil, it is for them’. So when the time for the other [prophecy] comes, that they might ravage you, and that they might enter the Temple, just as they entered it, the first time, and that they might destroy all that they conquered, utterly. (Al-Isra’, 17:4–7)

And after him We said to the Children of Israel, ‘Dwell in the land; but when the promise of the Hereafter comes to pass, We shall bring you [gathered] in mixed company’. (Al-Isra’, 17:104)

And We called him from the right side of the Mount and We brought him near in communion. (Maryam, 19:52)

By the fig and the olive, (Al-Tin, 95:1)

The Prophet Muhammad also mentioned Jerusalem in a number of Hadiths, including:

‘Whoever dies in Jerusalem, it is as though he has died in the heavens.’ (Musnad al-Bazzar; Musnad Abu Hamzah Anas ibn Malik)

And:

‘A prayer in my mosque is superior to one thousand prayers anywhere else other than Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa.’ (Musnad Al-Imam Ahmad)

The Qur’an and Hadith are the first and final word for Muslims. And Jerusalem is one of Islam’s three holiest sites and is sacred and holy to Muslims, as can be seen in the Qur’an and Hadith.

Is it not high-time that the ignorance, spin, and misinformation come to an end? In the interview that made Mr. Feldstein want to gag, King Abdullah’s warnings are right and poignant:

There are challenges that the churches are facing from policies on the ground. If we continue to use Jerusalem as a soapbox for politics, things can get out of control really, really quickly … If we don’t have any Christians in the region, I think that is a disaster for all of us. They are part of our past, they are part of our present, and they must be part of our future.

Bassem Hajjar servers as advisor to the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf, Islamic Affairs and Holy Sites.

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