May 12, 2009 / 9:06 AM / 10 years ago

FACTBOX: Jerusalem, focus of faith, conflict

(Reuters) - Pope Benedict arrived on Monday in Jerusalem, a city revered by all three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Here are some facts about religion and the city:


Sitting on a rocky promontory, watered by springs, some 760 meters (2,500 feet) up in the hills between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, Jerusalem has been settled for 5,000 years.

Much of its religious significance stems from a Jewish belief that a spot now covered by the landmark golden Dome of the Rock is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, before God stayed his hand. Later Christians and Muslims wove that and other beliefs about Jerusalem into their own faiths.

The city, within boundaries defined by Israel but not recognized internationally, is now home to 750,000 people, two in three of them Jews and the rest mostly Muslim Palestinians.


Jews, from biblical kings such as Solomon to present day Israelis, see Jerusalem as both the center of their religion and as a national capital. Solomon is believed to have built a great temple on the rock about 960 BC that became a focus of religious sacrifice and commerce. Destroyed by Babylonians four centuries later, it was replaced by the Second Temple. That was in turn destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD, part of events that left Jews largely in exile across Europe and the Middle East. It is a part of the ruined retaining wall of that Roman-era Temple Mount complex, the Western Wall, that is now the main focus of prayer.

After Israeli forces captured Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City with its sacred sites, in 1967, Israel annexed it and declared all of the city its “eternal capital” — a move not recognized internationally. In the 1940s, the United Nations had proposed international control of the city. Palestinians want a capital of their future state in at least East Jerusalem.

Israel’s clergy are led by two state-appointed chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, representing Jews originating mainly in Europe, the other Sephardic, for Middle Eastern Jews. Rabbis have power in family law and other matters in the largely secular state.


For Christians, Jerusalem is primarily the site of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A Jew, born in nearby Bethlehem, Jesus preached around King Herod’s Temple. Seen by his Jewish disciples as the Messiah of Jewish prophecy, sent by God to save mankind, the story of Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans and then resurrection at Calvary is the focus of annual Easter rituals. These move from the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the traditional site of the resurrection.

When the Roman Empire became Christian, so did Jerusalem, until the expansion of Arab Islam in the 7th century. Europeans established a Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusades from the 11th to 13th centuries, before Muslim rule returned. It ended only with British defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1917.

Control of Christian holy sites in Jerusalem is divided among various denominations, notably Roman Catholics led by Archbiship Fouad Twal, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Greek Orthodox Church, whose local patriarch is Irineos I.


Muslims also venerate the site of Abraham’s preparations to sacrifice his son as the supreme symbol of his faith in God. It was from that rock that they also believe Mohammad ascended to heaven. Today it is covered by the Dome of the Rock, originally built in 691 AD. It is part of a compound, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, which also contains al-Aqsa mosque. The site is the third holiest in Islam after the cities of Mecca and Medina.

When British rule ended in 1948, Jordanian forces occupied the Old City and Arab East Jerusalem. The King of Jordan retains a role in ensuring the upkeep of the Muslim holy places, even though Israel captured the city in 1967.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appointed the present Grand Mufti, or leading Muslim cleric of Jerusalem, in 2006. Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, including the 240,000 or so who live inside Israel’s Jerusalem boundaries, but many complain Israeli security denies them free access to al-Aqsa compound.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland and Alastair Macdonald

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