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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem

Almost half of the earth’s 6.8 billion people associate Jerusalem with the Divine. For Jews, the glory of the Lord once filled the sanctuary in Solomon’s Temple, which stood at the heart of this center of Jewish life and culture. Christians identify Jerusalem with the ministry of Jesus, revere it as the place of his passion, death and resurrection and celebrate it as the birthplace of the church. Muslims believe Abraham sacrificed Ishmael on the rock where Solomon later built his shrine. They also honor Jerusalem for it figured as a stop on Muhammad’s miraculous night journey, where the prophet met Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

From the earliest days of the church, Christians have called Jerusalem the “Holy City,” or Haghia Polis in Greek, the language both of the New Testament and of the early church. This title spells out the paradox plaguing Jerusalem: the entanglement of the spiritual and political. Not just a shining city on the hill, Jerusalem has come to represent millennia of conflict. Today, the city lies at the heart of the dispute between the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, which many observers believe to be the root of the clash between the Muslim and Western worlds.

The dominant church of the city, the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem, has not remained above the fray. Like a boat rocked by gale storms, for centuries this smallest of the patriarchal churches has weathered invasion and patronage, violence and peace. Today, it includes about 130,000 people — Arabs primarily — scattered throughout the Holy City, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula. Yet other churches in the Holy Land are beginning to overshadow it. Many Arab Christians now belong to other denominations (primarily the Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches) for cultural, pastoral and practical reasons.

Early church. After the feast of Pentecost — which is celebrated as the birthday of the church — the followers of Jesus gathered around the pillars of the community, James, Peter and John. James, who is described as “the Just,” would guide the mother church of the Holy City for some 30 years.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, James presided over the Council of Jerusalem, which ruled that followers of Jesus, Jewish or not, need not follow all the Jewish laws rigorously adhered to since the time of Moses, in particular circumcision. James did suggest, however, that converts follow some aspects of Mosaic Law. “We ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.”

James’ opinion was accepted by the council, which occurred around the year 50. It illustrates the tensions that existed in the early Christian community between those who accepted the dominance of Greek culture (Paul) and those who were more cautious or even wary of it (James). Peter, who counseled James, bridged the two by offering a compromise, which biblical scholars believe helped James form his attitude toward the issue.

According to the ancient accounts of Josephus, Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome, James the Just was stoned to death about eight years before the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. After his death, 14 bishops “of the circumcision” guided the mother church until the Romans nearly annihilated the Jews and leveled what remained of Jerusalem in the year 135. Since Jews were barred from the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, erected over the ruins of Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus elected Marcus, a Gentile, to guide them. According to tradition, Judas of Jerusalem, the last Jewish Christian bishop of Jerusalem, died in exile.

Subordinated to the church of Caesarea Palaestina, which became the provincial capital of Roman Palestine in 134, the mother church carried on, keeping alive the deeds and words of Jesus Christ. The Liturgy of St. James, which developed during this period, is considered the oldest complete form of the Eucharist to have survived. Used on specific feasts by the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Byzantine and Syriac traditions, the liturgy influenced the rites of the church of Antioch, the historical foundation for the Armenian, Byzantine, Chaldean and Syriac liturgical traditions.

Patriarchal church. The fortunes of the mother church in the Holy City changed dramatically after the Roman emperor Constantine I issued an edict of toleration in 313 granting Christians the freedom to worship. The emperor’s mother, Helena, embraced the Christian faith and traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage between the years 326 and 328. According to her contemporary, Eusebius of Caesarea, she was accompanied by Bishop Macarius of Aelia Capitolina and was charged by her son with locating the sites associated with Jesus’ life and ministry as well as the relics of his passion and death.

Helena’s quest was successful and it fueled a zeal for building; Constantine opened his treasury and commissioned the construction of churches and shrines throughout the region, including the basilicas of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Eleona on the Mount of Olives and the Resurrection, near the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha in Jerusalem as well as a chapel to enshrine the Burning Bush in the Sinai Peninsula. These holy sites drew pilgrims from throughout the Roman world and beyond; many remained and withdrew to the desert near the Dead Sea or the banks of the Jordan River, where they led lives of penitence and prayer.

Though still subordinate to the metropolitan bishops of Caesarea, the mother church grew in prestige. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon recognized the church of Jerusalem as a patriarchate, according it a special status after Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch.

As the focus of the Roman Empire turned east after the founding of the new Christian capital of Constantinople in 330, the Greek and Syriac identities of the provinces and churches of the eastern Mediterranean (which often clashed with one another) collided with the western Mediterranean’s more Latin character. These differences eventually divided the church (and the empire), as various theological positions assumed cultural, linguistic and political dimensions.

Even as the church of Jerusalem absorbed pilgrims from throughout Christendom, its patriarchs usually allied themselves with the Greek culture (now understood as Byzantine) and political power of Constantinople. The monks of the Jerusalem patriarchate, on the other hand, typically opposed the reach of the capital and espoused a theology rooted in the Syriac tradition.

Despite the turmoil, Jerusalem’s churches, shrines and monasteries received not only pious visitors, but also their offerings.

Contemporary chronicles refer to the precious gems, costly metals, rare woods and unusual marbles that embellished the holy sites. Even as late as the eighth century — long after the Persians sacked the city in 614, leveling its churches and stealing the relics of the true cross — churches were built and decorated with elaborate mosaics and sculptural detail.

Such architectural evidence points to the coexistence of Christians and Muslims in the region, despite its occupation by the Muslim Arabs. In 637, during a long siege that threatened to starve the Holy City, Patriarch Sophronius proposed to surrender it to Omar, the successor of Muhammad, provided he left its churches untouched and allowed its Christians to worship unhindered. Traveling by horse from Arabia, Omar agreed to the terms and received the keys to the city from the patriarch, who then escorted the caliph to the holy sites. Declining to worship in the great church enshrining the tomb of Jesus, Omar prayed outside the confines of the shrine. The Mosque of Omar, which lies but a few feet from the Holy Sepulchre, dates to this time.

Though more than 13 centuries old, the Covenant of Omar brokered by the patriarch remains an important legal document; it outlines the rights of Christians in a Muslim state and protects them as People of the Book. Until the tenth century, when internal Muslim strife gave the resurgent Byzantines an opportunity to retake Jerusalem, Christian life — including pilgrimages — continued unabated.

Crusades. By the early 11th century, the condition of Jerusalem’s Christian community had deteriorated dramatically. In a letter to the Byzantine emperor in 966, the city’s patriarch implored the deployment of imperial armies to seize the city from the Muslim Fatimid dynasty that governed it. The letter was intercepted and an angry mob lynched the patriarch and burned him at the stake.

The infamous Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, Hakim bi–Amr Allah (985–1021), after forbidding the public celebration of Epiphany and Easter, ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009. By the end of Hakim’s reign 11 years later, most of the churches, convents and monasteries in the Holy Land were either destroyed or appropriated. Though Hakim’s successors permitted the reconstruction of the Holy Sepulchre and restored Christian pilgrimages, Hakim’s actions ignited a movement in Europe to restore Christian sovereignty in the Holy Land.

The Great Schism that ruptured the unity of the churches of Constantinople and Rome (1054) did not prevent the Byzantine emperor from requesting papal help to deliver Jerusalem from the Muslims and to restore it to Byzantine rule. In 1095, Pope Urban II responded, calling for a Crusade in which he offered spiritual and material benefits to those who joined the emperor’s quest.

In 1098, a crew of nobles, knights, vassals, monks and penitents took Antioch. They established a Crusader principality and a Latin patriarchate, later expelling the incumbent Byzantine patriarch, who fled to Constantinople. A year later, the Crusaders seized Jerusalem, which had been emptied of its Eastern Christians by the Fatimid governor. After the dust settled, Eastern and Latin clergy processed together to the tomb of the Lord to celebrate the return of Christian sovereignty to the city. Christian unity soon evaporated, however, when the Crusaders installed a Latin patriarch, Arnulf of Chocques, and displaced the presiding Byzantine patriarch, Simon II, who fled to Constantinople. Relations deteriorated further when the Latin patriarch forbade the celebration of Eastern Christian liturgies in the Holy Sepulchre. Until the collapse of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 and the Principality of Antioch in 1268, the Byzantine patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch — who descended from the apostolic period — resided in Byzantine–controlled territory. These actions further widened the rift between the Byzantine “Orthodox” East and the Latin “Catholic” West.

Muslim control. Seljuk Turks, Egyptian Mamluks and Ottoman Turks (all Sunni Muslims) governed the Holy Land and its Holy City for more than 700 years. Oddly, ownership of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem dominated the Ottoman era in Palestine. The same could be said for the Christian communities with stakes in the holy places, including the Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, which had been dominated by ethnic Greeks since 1534.

As the status of the various Christian communities fluctuated — often influenced by the whims of the Ottoman sultan — so, too, did their rights to the sanctuaries. For example, in one seven–year period in the 17th century, the right of preeminence in the Holy Sepulchre among the Orthodox and the Franciscans (who represented the interests of Latin Catholics) changed at least six times.

In 1852, the sultan issued an order, or firman, delineating the rights of the ecclesiastical communities in the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places, thus unraveling the web of decrees that had been drawn up by the Ottomans, the Russians (who defended Orthodox concerns) and the French (who represented Latin Catholics).

Scrupulous adherence to this “Status Quo” — which confirmed Orthodox control of the holy places with concessions to the Armenians and the Franciscans — continues despite the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of British Mandate Palestine in 1917, Jordanian jurisdiction from 1948 to 1967 and subsequent Israeli control. Through the years, however, this fidelity has paralyzed discussion among the custodial communities, contributed to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853–56, hampered restoration efforts and led to random acts of interconfessional violence within the holy places, scandalizing Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide.

Modern patriarchate. Following World War II, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, which had been governed by Great Britain under a mandate from the old League of Nations. The General Assembly in November 1947 decided to divide Mandate Palestine into three parts: a Jewish state, an Arab state and a separate political entity — a corpus separatum — the city of Jerusalem.

The resolution called for a “Trusteeship Council” to appoint a governor who would establish working relationships with the Jewish and Arab states to “foster cooperation among all the inhabitants of the city” and to “encourage and support” the development of peaceful relations between the two peoples living in Palestine. Due to the outbreak of hostilities in 1948 between the two peoples, such a resolution was never implemented.

The constant state of conflict has changed the dynamic of the Christian community, especially the once dominant Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem, which had begun already a process of decline since the mid–19th century.

In 1948, about 20 percent of the population of Mandate Palestine was Christian. Today, that number has declined dramatically to less than 2 percent in both Israel and Palestine. In neighboring Jordan, about 6 percent of its 6.4 million people is Christian. Throughout the Arab community in the Holy Land, Christians once led civic, cultural and intellectual life. Today, their influence is limited, even in the historic centers of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. And whereas the mother church of Jerusalem once commanded the allegiance of most Christians in the Holy Land, today only about half remain in the Orthodox Church.

In Israel, most Arab Christians belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Led by an Arab patriarch, episcopate, clergy and an empowered laity, Melkites share the same Byzantine rites and traditions of the Orthodox Church while in full communion with the church of Rome. In Palestine, the Latin Catholic Church is more influential, particularly with its schools and social service institutions, most of which are administered and staffed by Arab clergy, religious and laity. The Orthodox Church remains the largest Arab Christian body only in Jordan; this may explain what lies at the heart of its decline in both Israel and Palestine.

In Israel and Palestine, an independent Arab state has existed only in theory, intensifying Palestinian Arab nationalism. Dominated by a Greek hierarchy, the Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem is seen by many Orthodox Arabs as an extension of the Greek state and consequently has little regard for Arab Orthodox laity or parish priests, many of whom live in poverty. Secretive transactions involving the selling of church properties in Palestinian areas to Israeli investors have reinforced these sentiments.

In Jordan, the cause for Arab nationalism is largely met by an independent monarchy led by the Hashemite family, who descend from the Prophet Muhammad. Patriarchal parishes thrive there and a reinvigorated school system buttresses the patriarchate’s standing in society.

Such tensions have impacted the position of the patriarch, whose election must be recognized by the secular authorities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. In August 2005, the present patriarch, Theophilos III, was elected by the holy synod after his predecessor was denounced and removed for making unilateral and inappropriate real estate deals. The Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian king recognized the election, but Israel did not for some two years, throwing the patriarchate into financial and pastoral disarray.

With his election, Patriarch Theophilos has pledged greater financial transparency and to consult a council composed of Arab Orthodox laity, which had been largely ignored for decades. More open to ecumenism than his immediate predecessors, the patriarch continues to host meetings with the heads of the other churches in the Holy Land and issues appeals regarding the concerns and rights of the Christian community.

The revival of the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe, particularly in Romania and Russia, has bolstered the patriarchate of Jerusalem and heightened its profile as the mother church in the Orthodox world, but its ultimate fate depends on a just political resolution between Israelis and Palestinians.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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