An Endangered Mosaic: Churches in the Holy Land

In 1964, when Michelangelo’s Pieta was transported to New York for exhibition in the Vatican Pavilion at the World’s Fair, the greatest care was exercised in transporting the magnificent sculpture. It was X-rayed for stress points and packaged and moved with painstaking caution. It was exhibited under high security.

The endangered art and architectural treasures of Venice have caught the world’s attention and, consequently, received generous patronage. The destruction of the monumental, sixth-century statues of Buddha in Afghanistan drew public outrage.

Now, another beautiful work, a mosaic, is in danger. It is the church in the Holy Land. I have been asked to draw your attention to this peril.

First of all, what do we mean by the Holy Land? Most presume the Holy Land to be restricted to Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. However, if one defines a land as “holy” when one of the key events of our salvation history took place there, then Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq all fall into the category. For the purposes of our discussion today, we shall limit the term to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, the territory generally covered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

It is somewhat difficult for us in North America to appreciate the situation of the churches in the Holy Land for at least two reasons. The first is that North Americans generally experience “church” only as the Western churches that divided because of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. For most of us, to be Catholic is to belong to the Latin Church composed of ethnic immigrants and their descendents from western and central Europe and their colonies. Catholics are Irish, German, Italian, Polish or Latino. However, that is not the case in the Holy Land. The demography of the Holy Land today is similar to that of the first Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11) with people coming from all over the world.

It is also difficult for North Americans to comprehend the possibility that the church or Christians more generally might be in real danger of extinction. While many decry secularism and the influx of Muslims to the West, it is difficult for us to consider these phenomena as threats to our existence. However, as we shall see, the Christians and churches of the Holy Land find themselves in precisely that situation.

In the Holy Land, the churches have been under siege since the middle of the 20th century. Enormous numbers of Christians left the region in 1948 and 1967. The result is that the Holy Land is practically depopulated of Christians:

  • In Israel, out of a total population of 7 million, there are 147,000 Christians, or 2.1 per cent of the total population.
  • In the Palestinian Territories, with a population of 3.8 million, there are an estimated 40,000 – 90,000 Christians, or 1.1 – 2.4 per cent of the population.
  • Out of approximately 6.1 million people in Jordan, the Christian population is approximately 355,000, or around 6 percent. This “large” number can be partly attributed to the immigration of Christians from Iraq.

Historical Developments

In order to appreciate better the panoply of churches in the Holy Land, a brief excursion into history is necessary. Christians look to Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) as the birth of the church. It was through the efforts of those fearful disciples gathered in an upper room that the Good News spread to the far reaches of the world. This expansion and a series of unfortunate divisions gave rise to the diversity and multiplicity we see in the church today.

Christianity arose in the context of one of history’s greatest political structures. The Roman Empire encompassed a territory today controlled by approximately 40 nations. Despite the persecution inflicted on Christians, the empire furnished the adherents of this new religious movement communication, transportation and commercial systems that served to spread the Good News. Certain cities of importance in the secular world, e.g., Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, attracted the apostles, evolved into centers of evangelization and imprinted their own unique cultures (i.e., Latin, Greek, Coptic and Syriac) on the churches that arose. At this point, the church was one but diverse.

In the fourth century, political antagonisms between the Persian and Roman empires provoked controversy within the church and resulted in the breakaway of the Assyrian Church of the East.

In the 5th century, pressures inside and outside the Roman Empire affected the church. Copts, Syrians and Armenians resented the treatment they received from the Greeks who controlled the urban centers, especially the imperial capital of Constantinople. The political, economic and social tensions also affected relations among the churches. Divisions arose and differences regarding the nature of Christ served as a veneer for these antagonisms. The churches that resulted from this division are known today at the Oriental Orthodox or Ancient Orthodox churches.

In the 11th century, the drift between the Latin and Greek worlds solidified into a division we call the Great Schism. The resulting communities identified themselves as Catholic (Latin) and Orthodox (Greek). It is important to note that from the 11th to the 16th century, to be a Catholic meant — with very few exceptions — that one was a Latin Catholic.

In the 16th century, still another division took place within the Latin Catholic Church. The Reformation resulted in the establishment of Protestant communities.

After many attempts to reunify the Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, the Catholic Reformation took a different approach, known — pejoratively today — as uniatism, that is, the conversion of portions of the Orthodox churches and the creation of parallel hierarchies. Most of the Eastern Catholic churches are a result of this initiative.

Since Jerusalem is the “hometown” of Christianity, it is not surprising that all these churches are represented in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Let us have a brief look at them.

Orthodox Churches

With a population of 150,000, the Greek Orthodox Church is the largest Christian community in the Holy Land. The Byzantine liturgy is celebrated in Greek in monasteries and in Arabic in the parish churches. The patriarch and the upper hierarchy (including the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre) are almost exclusively Greeks, while the parish priests and laity are Arabs.

The Palestinian Arab Orthodox faithful have expressed the desire to have Palestinian leaders in positions of authority in their respective districts, in contrast to the tradition since the period of the Ottoman Empire. In 2005, the Holy Synod of the Church of Jerusalem unanimously elected Theophilos III as the 141st Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Russian Orthodox Church established itself in Jerusalem because of the large numbers of Russian pilgrims to the city. Russian pilgrims began making their way to the Holy Land in the 11th century, but they did not establish their own institutions in Palestine until the 19th century, when pilgrims came there in the thousands. After the Crimean War (1853-56), when the number of pilgrims dramatically increased and the czar sought to increase his influence in the region, Russians acquired 32 acres of choice real estate (the Knesset is built on it) and also developed the area now known as the Russian Compound on the Jaffa Road.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and its disdain of the church put an end to pilgrimage from Russia. It also gave rise to a Russian Church outside Russia (the so-called White Russians) that opposed the Patriarchate of Moscow (the so-called Red Russians). With the recent reconciliation of the two communities, one can hope the dispute will end.

The Romanian Orthodox Church was established in Jerusalem in 1935. Ten years earlier, the church of Romania, with its headquarters in Bucharest, received the status of patriarchate in the family of Orthodox churches. It was recognized as a leading Orthodox Church and Orthodox nation in the world because of its numbers and uninterrupted Christian witness. A few Romanian Orthodox clerics shepherd the large number of guest workers living in Israel.

Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Oriental Orthodox family of churches in the Holy Land includes the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches.

The Armenian Apostolic Church was organized as a state Church in 301 and, like some of the other Oriental Orthodox churches, has remained a national religious group ever since. Armenians were not at the Council in Chalcedon in 451, but 55 years later, they rejected the Chalcedonian definition regarding the dual nature of Christ.

Armenians claim to have the longest uninterrupted presence in Jerusalem. After the Armenian genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey, 20,000 Armenians fled to the Holy Land. Ten thousand of them sought refuge in the Convent of the Olive Tree.

Today, there are approximately 2,000 Armenians in Jerusalem, around half of whom live in the Armenian quarter. Another 4,000 live in the West Bank. Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian shepherds the flock. Because the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem still observes the Julian calendar, the Jerusalem group is unique among Armenians in celebrating Christmas and the Epiphany on 18 January.

The Syriac Orthodox Church is part of the Patriarchate of Antioch and was formed by those in that patriarchate who rejected the 5th century Council of Chalcedon definition of Christ as both human and divine. The word “Syriac” does not refer to a modern nation but rather to its use of the Syriac Aramaic language, a dialect of the language Jesus spoke in first-century Palestine. The Syriac Church traditionally employs it in its liturgy.

There are only 500-700 Syrian Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem today, a number reduced from 6,000 in 1948, the time of the creation of the State of Israel. There are currently around 6,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, most of them living in the Bethlehem area. Mor Severius Malke Mourad is the Syriac Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem and is assisted by seven clerics.

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its founding to St. Mark and is the largest Christian church in the Middle East today. The liturgy is in the Coptic language and also in Arabic. The word Copt is used to identify Egyptian Christians and is related to the Greek word Aigyptos, meaning Egyptian.

After Chalcedon, the Patriarchate of Alexandria divided over the Chalcedonian definition. The larger group, the non-Chalcedonians, defected from the Greek Orthodox Church and is known today as the Coptic Orthodox Church. Their leader carries the title of pope and resides in Egypt. A Coptic Orthodox archbishop resides in Jerusalem to head a community of approximately 2,000 faithful, most of whom are descendants of immigrants from Egypt.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its link with Jerusalem back 3,000 years to when the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba is said to have visited King Solomon in Jerusalem.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians take pride in their links with Jerusalem and their Jewish roots. Certain Ethiopian customs still follow Jewish practice today. The language of worship is Ge’ez — the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and a product of Hebrew and Arabic languages. There are around 2,000 Ethiopian Christians in the Holy Land today under the Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem.

Catholic Churches

Latin Church

The Latin Patriarchate was established in Jerusalem in 1099 during the Crusades. A century later, when the Crusaders were conquered and forced to leave the city, the Latin hierarchy fled with them. In the absence of a residential patriarch, Pope Clement VI, in 1342, made the Franciscan friars the official custodians of the Holy Land. Over the next 500 years, the Franciscans were the Latin Church presence in the Holy Land, guarding the holy places and fostering the growth of the local church. The Franciscan Custos, Father Pier Luigi Pizzaballa, is counted among the heads of the churches in the Holy Land.

In 1847, Pius IX reestablished a Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem entrusted with the pastoral care of Latin Catholics in modern day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus. The first Latin patriarch of modern times was Giuseppe Valerga, a native of Genoa. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, founded in the 11th century and restored in the 19th century, today collaborates in the support of the Latin Patriarchate.

The Latin Patriarchate comprises approximately 80,000 faithful, the majority of whom are Arabs. The Latin Patriarch, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, a Jordanian, is regarded as the preeminent Catholic leader in the Holy Land.

Melkite Greek Catholic Church

With the exception of the Maronite Church, the Eastern Catholic churches are the result of missionary activity on the part of Roman Catholics during the 16th-18th centuries, whereby portions of the Orthodox churches entered into full communion with Rome and parallel Catholic hierarchies were established.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church was officially founded in 1724 after a split in the Patriarchate of Antioch. One group continued as the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch with its own patriarch, while another bishop was recognized by the pope as the Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church. The Melkites worship in Arabic and have maintained the Byzantine liturgy and many other Orthodox traditions.

Today there are 53,000 Greek Catholics in the Holy Land, making them the second largest church after the Greek Orthodox. Around 50,000 live in the Galilee region entrusted to the pastoral care of the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop. There is still a small community in Jerusalem entrusted to the pastoral care of a patriarchal exarch.

Other Eastern Catholic churches

The Maronite Church originated in Antioch but traces its establishment to the mountains of Lebanon and its people to the ancient Phoenicians. Maronites take pride in the tradition that says they were always in communion with the Church of Rome. There are approximately 7,000 Maronites in Israel under a bishop who is assisted by seven priests.

There are small Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Chaldean Catholic communities as well. Only the Syriac Catholic community has a residential bishop at this time.

Protestant (Evangelical) Churches

Anglican Church

As part of the initiative of the Anglican Church Mission Society, a missionary post was established in Jerusalem in 1833 with the support of the London Jewish Society. (a Jewish Christian missionary society). In 1841, Michael Solomon Alexander, a converted rabbi, began to serve as a bishop in Jerusalem, with a diocese covering the Middle East. The diocese was originally a joint venture with the Lutheran Church of Prussia, serving both Anglicans and Lutherans, but after 1887, the diocese was solely Anglican. In 1898, Saint George Cathedral was built. Worship is in Arabic and English to serve the expatriate faithful and the Diocese operates a number of local schools and social service agencies. The community is now served by a Palestinian Arab bishop.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land traces its origin to the middle of the 19th century when German and English missionaries went to Palestine to support the Christian minority through pastoral and social initiatives. It shared a bishopric with the Anglican Church until 1886, after which only Germany continued to support it. An Arab bishop guides the six Arab-speaking congregations in Jerusalem and the West Bank and one in Amman, Jordan, while a German Probst directs the German expatriate community.

Smaller Groups

Consequent to the twentieth-century missionary movements, there are several small Protestant communities who serve expatriates in their native languages.

There is a community known as the Messianic Jews, with approximately 6,000 to 15,000 adherents in Israel and a half-million worldwide. They identify themselves as Jewish (a position rejected by the Israeli government)), read the Torah, observe some Jewish holidays and traditions and claim their community in continuity with the believers in Jesus of the first century. They hold fast to the belief that Israel is the Promised Land for the Jews and that every Jew must live there.

Some Evangelical Christians related to — but generally not residing in — the Holy Land espouse a kind of Christian Zionism. They are people who believe that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel is in accord with biblical prophecy. Because this group supports the return of Jews to the Holy Land while apparently ignoring the Palestinian Christians who have been there for centuries, it has been condemned by Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran religious leaders.

Guardians of the Holy Places

After the major feasts of Christmas and Easter, the media will carry news items about conflicts — at times even physical — among Christian groups. Because of this notoriety, some explanation is warranted about the guardianship of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (known in Arabic as the Church of the Resurrection) and the Church of the Nativity.

According to treaty arrangements and firmans, commonly referred to as the status quo, enacted by and with the Ottoman Empire during the 18th century (and fought over in the Crimean War in the 19th century), the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches have been granted guardianship of both edifices. (The Syriac, Ethiopian and Coptic Churches also have rights to certain spaces in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.) Observance and breaches of the status quo arrangements are viewed as bizarre and the ensuing conflicts are less than edifying.

The renovation of the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — with the cooperation of the Franciscans, Greeks and Armenians — was regarded as miraculous! All parties concerned have their own points, but we must move beyond the scandal of having the relations of Christians at the Holy Places governed by laws established by the Ottoman Empire and enforced by the state of Israel.

Critical Mass?

The term critical mass is defined as the size or amount of something required before an activity or event can take place. Has the Christian population in the Holy Land been reduced to such a low level that Christianity can no longer “take place?” It is undeniable that a few hundred thousand Christians of different — at times antagonistic — communities cannot make a difference. One must also take into account that a significant number of these believers are unemployed and live below the poverty line. On their own, they are politically powerless. Today, the real strength of the Christians in the Holy Land lies beyond the boundaries of that region. People like you are concerned and want to help by sharing your resources and influencing political leaders on this important issue of justice and human rights.

It is unlikely that — despite our best efforts — we shall reverse the demographic reality of Christian emigration. A return of Christians to the Holy Land in the near future is also unlikely. The right of return for Jews is a matter of Israeli public policy. The Palestinians, with their Muslim majority, want to return. But we Christians are not promoting the “right of return” as a solution to the problem. This does not mean we shall abandon this small community that remains.

The basis of all our actions is a spiritual one. There is no “critical mass” for Christianity, for the love of Christ, to work. After all, the movement started with a few frightened people huddled in an upper room. The Spirit of Christ impelled them to spread the Good News. As Catholics, our primary concern must be that the love of Christ continues to be manifested in the land where he walked.


1 For the sake of simplicity, we shall not treat Cyprus.

2 Arab Christians – 119,000; Others – 28,000. Source: CIA – The World Fact Book, s.v. Israel, last updated 21 August 2008.

3 Source:CIA – The World Fact Book, s.v. Jordan, last updated 4 September 2008.

4 The state of Israel acknowledges the right of return (aliyah) and grants citizenship to those with Jewish parents or grandparents who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. These persons are not considered Jews by Jewish law (Halacha). However, persons who have voluntarily changed their religion are not accorded this right. In 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Messianic Judaism was another religion; therefore, its followers do not enjoy the right of return.

5 See The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism (2006).

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