JERUSALEM—A German Catholic abbot visiting the Western Wall was recently asked to remove his cross, which sparked a minor controversy here. Tensions were already high. Jews welcome non-Jews to the Western Wall daily. All visitors must wear a kippah, and Christians are asked to remove or conceal crosses out of respect while visiting this sacred place, where Jews gather both to mourn the destruction of the Temple and to celebrate—their return to the land, the Sabbath, and holy days.
The Western Wall isn’t the most sacred site in Judaism, just the most sacred that Jews may visit. The most sacred is the Temple Mount, where the Holy of Holies is believed by many to be under the Dome of the Rock, though its precise location isn’t known. The Holy of Holies, within the Tabernacle, built over the rock of Isaac’s Binding in Genesis, housed the Ark of the Covenant.
Many Jews believe that the presence of God still dwells in the Holy of Holies, however, most rabbis forbid their congregants to visit the Temple Mount for fear they’ll inadvertently set foot on the Holy of Holies. Even Jews granted a rabbinic dispensation to visit are forbidden to pray there by the Waqf, the Islamic authority: only Muslims may pray on the Temple Mount.
“You can go to the Temple Mount,” a Jewish friend said with perceptible heartache prior to my visit to the Temple Mount earlier this year. “I can’t.” Non-Muslim visitors may only visit at certain times, may not wear the symbols of any other religion (including crosses), may not pray, and may not enter the Dome of the Rock.
The significance of a tabernacle housing the divine presence won’t be lost on Christians, most of whom belong to churches that adhere to the doctrines of transubstantiation and the real presence in the tabernacle. The Temple Tabernacle was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. For most Christians, however, neither the site of the first Tabernacle nor the Western Wall has much religious significance—certainly not as much as it does for Jews. Some observers might therefore be curious as to why the abbot was so offended when asked to remove his pectoral cross.
It may be unhelpful for Christians to regard this matter through the lens of rights. If religious freedom is the basis for wearing a cross to the Western Wall, a far more compelling case could be made on the same grounds for Jews to visit the Temple Mount and to pray when they get there. Such obvious questions aren’t even raised. It begins to feel as though there are two standards: one for Jews, and another for everyone else.
The request that the abbot conceal his cross comes at a time when there has been a rise in anti-Christian incidents in Israel, especially the Old City, where clergy are too often harassed and even spat upon. Israeli rabbis have condemned the incidents and police and local officials are taking steps to prevent more.
The situation for Christians in Israel is preferable to that of the other dozen countries in the Middle East this author has visited. It’s also safer for Christians in Israel than it is for Jews across much of the West, especially Europe. There, few Jews wear the Star of David or a kippah for fear of physical violence, whereas Christians in Israel publicly display icons and wear crosses.
Visits by clergy to the Western Wall are an opportunity to acknowledge the role of Christians in the persecution of Jews in European history—a history Jews are made to remember because too many Christians have forgotten. Or to teach Christians that the same pagan Romans who destroyed the Temple also crucified Peter and beheaded Paul. Or to apologize for the forced conversion, torture, and murder of Jews in Spain. Prelates presiding over the immolation of forced converts should, even centuries later, offend Christians more than the removal of a cross. The cross ought to be a symbol of sacrificial love but in Jewish memory—even living Jewish memory—it has been the symbol of Christian perfidy, violence, and murder. In any case, priests visiting the Western Wall aren’t like missionaries being forced to choose between torture and apostasy, and it does no one any good to pretend that they are.
Christians in Jerusalem, Israel, and the region are called to play the role of peacemaker, not victim. There are enough tensions in the Old City without Christians adding to them. Christians should worry less about holding the Jewish people to high standards (Jews already do that) and more about holding Christians to Christian standards. There is little about rights in the gospel but much about obligations to forgive and to ask forgiveness and to love—all of which are sufficiently burdensome without getting into the obligations of others.
It’s a pity more Christians, Catholics in particular, don’t feel more deeply connected to their Jewish roots, to Hebrew saints, or to Jewish holy sites, such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Most Catholics regard Rome, rather than Jerusalem, as the spiritual center of Christianity. But it’s important for Christians to have a presence here—not for some essentially tribal reason but because of the critical role Christians play as peacemakers. This is, after all, where Christianity began, and although Christians were granted no specific land by divine sanction, their “elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” were.
Christians should approach that which is sacred to the Jewish people much as they approach the often-tragic history of Jewish-Catholic relations—with humility. Christians should approach the Western Wall the same way.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow with the Philos Project. He previously
served on the secretary’s policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State.