The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Given its association with the life of Jesus and his first community of disciples, Jerusalem has always been of great importance to Christians. As the Christian faith gained wider acceptance in the Roman Empire, the prestige of Jerusalem grew as well. Emperor Constantine, who was very favorable to Christianity, caused magnificent basilicas to be built over some of the holy places in the 4th century. Monasticism had come to Palestine very soon after the first Christian communities were founded in Egypt, and monasteries continued to flourish in the area, especially in the desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon raised the Church of Jerusalem to the rank of Patriarchate. In doing so, three ecclesiastical provinces with about sixty dioceses were detached from the Patriarchate of Antioch, to which the area had previously belonged. Under Greek Byzantine rule, Jerusalem continued to thrive as the destination of countless Christian pilgrims as “the Mother church.” The invasions of the Persians in 614 and the Arabs in 637 brought this prosperity to an end. Many Christian churches and monasteries were destroyed, and much of the population gradually converted to Islam.

In 1099 the Crusaders took over Jerusalem and established a Latin kingdom that would endure for almost a century. During this period Rome created a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. A line of Greek Patriarchs continued in exile, usually residing in Constantinople. The Greek Patriarchs began living at or near Jerusalem again following the collapse of the Crusader kingdom.

Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1187, but was soon taken by the Egyptian Mamelukes. The Ottoman Turks gained control of the city in 1516. During the 400 years of Ottoman rule there were many struggles between Christian groups over possession of the holy places. In the mid-19th century, the Turks confirmed Greek control over most of them. This arrangement has remained unchanged during the British mandate, which began in 1917, and under subsequent Jordanian and Israeli administrations.

The Patriarchate is governed by a Holy Synod presided over by the Patriarch. Its members, which cannot exceed 18, are all clerics and appointed by the Patriarch. In addition, there is a mixed council that allows for lay input in the decision-making process of the Patriarchate.

The fact that the hierarchy of the Patriarchate is Greek while the faithful are Arab has been a source of contention in recent times. Since 1534 all the Patriarchs of Jerusalem have been ethnic Greeks. At present the Patriarch and bishops are drawn from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, a Jerusalem monastic community founded in the 16th century. It now has 120 monks, almost all of them ethnic Greeks. The married clergy are entirely drawn from the local Arab population. This explains why the Byzantine liturgy is celebrated in Greek in the monasteries but in Arabic in the parishes.

The long-standing tensions resulting from this situation came into the open once again in May 1992 when the Arab Orthodox Initiative Committee was founded to press for the arabization of the Patriarchate as the only way to preserve an authentic Orthodox witness in the region. It subsequently called into question the alienation of church property and other financial dealings of the Patriarchate and demanded that church accounts be made public. It also claimed that the Greek hierarchy showed little concern for the welfare of the Arab Orthodox community, symbolized by the fact that the number of schools had dropped from six in 1967 to three. The activities of the committee, however, were vigorously resisted by the late Patriarch Diodoros and the Holy Synod, who asserted the hierarchy’s freedom of action and the historically Greek character of the Patriarchate.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate has also taken a rather negative stance towards the ecumenical movement: in 1989 it withdrew its delegates from all the bilateral theological dialogues in which the Orthodox Church is engaged. The Patriarch stated that other Christians were using the dialogues as a means of proselytism, and that, since the Orthodox Church already possesses the fullness of Christian truth, it had no need to participate in such discussions.

However, the Jerusalem Patriarchate continues to take part in the activities of the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, and Patriarch Diodoros willingly signed joint statements with other local church leaders, especially in regard to the situation of Christians in the Holy Land. These local ecumenical initiatives prepared the way for the drafting of a common memorandum entitled “The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians” that was signed by the Patriarchs and heads of all the traditional churches present in Jerusalem, including the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, on November 23, 1994. Since then, the same church leaders meet about every two months in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, under the presidency of the Patriarch. In March 2000 Patriarch Diodoros hosted a meeting between Pope John Paul II and local ecumenical leaders at the Jerusalem Patriarchate, and the Patriarchate resumed participation in the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in 2006.

Following the death of Patriarch Diodoros in December 2000, the Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Irenaios of Ierapolis as Patriarch of Jerusalem on August 13, 2001. According to regulations in effect since the Ottoman period, the new Patriarch had to be confirmed in office by the secular authorities. The government of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority quickly confirmed him, but the Israeli government did not recognize him officially until March 31, 2004.

Not long after his election, however, Irenaios was accused of questionable real estate deals involving church property and of acting in an authoritarian manner. On May 5, 2005, 14 of the 18 members of the Holy Synod denounced Irenaios and declared that they would no longer recognize his official acts. As the situation grew more serious, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople called a meeting of all the heads of the Orthodox Churches in Istanbul on May 23-25. Eight of the eleven churches represented (the churches of Antioch, Georgia and Poland abstained) voted to withdraw recognition of Irenaios as Patriarch, and to remove his name from the dyptics. On May 30 the Jerusalem Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Cornelius of Petra as caretaker to replace Irenaios. On August 22, 2005, Metropolitan Theophilos of Tabor was elected Patriarch. He was recognized by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority soon after his election, and was enthroned on November 22. But the Israeli government withheld recognition of the new Patriarch until December 2007.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate had a small presence in the United States in the 1920s. More recently it received a number of more conservative Greek Orthodox communities under its jurisdiction. In 2002 the Jerusalem Holy Synod established an epitropia (representation) in the United States, headed by Archbishop Damaskinos of Jaffa. At that time there were two monasteries and 15 parishes in this jurisdiction which was based in East Setauket, New York. In 2003, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States, which had accused the Jerusalem group of proselytizing among its faithful, directed its clergy not to concelebrate with American Jerusalem clergy. In 2008 the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Jerusalem reached an agreement that brought these communities under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America within a new Vicariate for Palestinian/Jordanian Communities in the USA, headed by the Vicar, Very Rev. George Jweinat. Currently the Vicariate has eight parishes and seven missions.

Location: Israel, Jordan and areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority
Head: Patriarch Theophilos III (born 1952, elected 2005)
Title: The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem
Residence: Jerusalem
Membership: 200,000

Last Modified: 25 January 2021

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