ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Melkites of Jerusalem

More than 10,000 strong, the Greek Melkite Catholic Church of Jerusalem is alive and well in city where Christianity began.

Entering the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate plunges one into a tumult of commerce: the shops draw in hordes of tourists eager to spend money. But turning left onto Greek Catholic Patriarchate Road leads one to quite a different world. The heart of this Greek Catholic artery, the Patriarchal Church, is a haven of peace and prayer. Most contemporary American Catholics churches seem barren by comparison; they may have a functional elegance, but one’s spirit is rarely swept heavenward simply by entering them.

Jerusalem’s Greek Catholic Patriarchal Church, on the other hand, seems alive with prayer even when silent. The vaults and walls of the church are covered in a symphony of color. Jewel-like frescoes depict Christ, the Mother of God and the saints. The iconostasis, a wall of icons separating the sanctuary from the body of the church, invites the worshipper to praise the one God with this company of heaven.

When in Jerusalem I usually attend Sunday liturgy at the Patriarchal Church. The congregation is small – emigration is a problem for all Christian communities in the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the chanting of the cantor and responses of the choir fill the church. Victor Nahhas, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, has been the choir leader and cantor for the last 13 years. Virtually the entire Byzantine liturgy is sung in Arabic, except for the familiar Greek refrain, Kyrie Eleison.

The Greek-Melkite Catholic Church, which counts more than 10,000 members in the Patriarchal Exarchate of Jerusalem, comprises Catholics whose origins can be traced to the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

During the great Christological debates in the fifth century, those Christians in these patriarchal sees who remained loyal to the established church of the Byzantine Empire became known as Melkites, which in Arabic means king’s men.

After the schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which culminated in the mutual excommunication of pope and patriarch in 1054, the Melkites retained communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In 1724, two men were ordained to fill the vacant see of Antioch. The patriarch of Constantinople supported one, a Greek named Sylvester, while the second, Cyril, reaffirmed his communion with the See of Rome. Forced to flee to the mountains of Lebanon, Cyril established a small Greek-Melkite Catholic community. The Melkites did not remain in isolation, however, as economic and educational opportunities took them to Egypt and Palestine. In 1773 these scattered Greek-Melkite Catholic communities were united under the person of a Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, who added Jerusalem and Alexandria to his title. Today a million or more Melkites, led by Patriarch Maximos V Hakim, are scattered throughout the Middle East, the Americas, Europe and Australia.

The Melkites are not the only Christians who have emigrated to the West. A significant portion of the Middle East’s Christian minority have fled the region’s civil strife; others have left seeking economic opportunities. The Israeli Palestinian conflict has had a serious impact on the church in the Holy Land.

Hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians were much on the mind of Archbishop Lutfi Laham, Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchal Vicar in Jerusalem, when I saw him late last year. The Archbishop was leaving the following day for Oslo, Norway, where he was scheduled to present a paper on peace in the Holy Land at a seminar held in conjunction with the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.

“Peace between our two peoples is the most important factor for the stability of the church in the Holy Land,” he stated, “and there are some signs of hope. But many expectations are still only expectations. Some things have gotten worse instead of better – the situation of Jerusalem, for example.”

Born in the Syrian town of Darayya (the traditional site of St. Paul’s conversion), located just five miles south of Damascus, the Archbishop entered the Basilian Salvatorian community and was ordained a priest in 1959. The Archbishop, who speaks several languages – English, French, German and Italian, in addition to his native Arabic – earned a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

“Jerusalem has been closed by checkpoints and West Bank Palestinians cannot enter Jerusalem to go to work, or even to go to church or get medical care. This closure of Jerusalem has had a major impact on the life of the church.”

He gave several examples. Men from the predominantly Christian village of Beit Sahour, which lies only six miles from Jerusalem, are not permitted to enter Jerusalem for work. Hence they have trouble paying their children’s tuition at the town’s Melkite school; the school is now in financial difficulty. It is hard for the diocese to set up pastoral meetings. Priests and nuns cannot travel freely to or through Jerusalem from outlying parishes. Permits to enter Jerusalem are difficult to obtain and are frequently invalidated. The Archbishop questions the very fact that the Israelis even require permits.

“There can be no peace without equal access to Jerusalem for both Palestinians and Israelis,” Archbishop Laham told me. “It is not just a question of access to holy sites, but of all matters of daily life – employment, shopping, education, everything that makes Jerusalem a living city. Jerusalem is as much a Palestinian city as an Israeli city. Israelis have rights to it, but so do Palestinians. Palestinians need Jerusalem to have bread.”

Jerusalem has a substantial Palestinian population, but a population under pressure from building restrictions and land confiscation. The Christian population of Jerusalem has dwindled through the years. In 1940 there were about 45,000 Christians living in Jerusalem. By 1967 that number had declined to about 28,000 and today only 10,000 Christians remain. There are now about 125,000 Christians in the entire Holy Land, while about 650,000 Palestinian Christians live elsewhere in the world.

All church leaders in the Holy Land are extremely concerned about this population flight. Should it continue, the church could become extinct in the land of its birth. Different church and relief agencies are attempting to stem the flow of emigration by addressing its causes. The Greek-Melkite Catholic Church operates medical clinics, welfare societies, community centers. The need for housing for Palestinian Christians is a particular concern of Archbishop Laham: “A house for a family is the single most important factor in the stability of the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Housing is the best way to stop the emigration of many, many Christians.” This view is shared by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, which brings together the bishops of all the Catholic Communities.

The Melkites have initiated a number of housing projects. Thirty-six families live in a diocesan housing development adjacent to the Melkite church in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian village largely annexed into Jerusalem. Cooperatives of young families have been formed in other villages to work together in obtaining financing for housing. To assist these cooperatives, Archbishop Laham enlists the support of benefactors from abroad, including the active assistance of CNEWA.

Priests as well as people are vital to the survival of the church in the Holy Land, hence CNEWA’s support of the Melkite major seminary in Beit Sahour. I visited the seminary and met some of the seminarians. They were an engaging group of young men, mostly from Galilee.

Amer Matta (Matta is Arabic for Matthew) was born in Nazareth of a Christian family: his grandfather and great-grandfather were deacons. Amer attended Catholic schools in Nazareth for 12 years and later earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from Technion University in Haifa. He then worked for a year and a half before he responded to God’s call to the priesthood. Amer told me that the liturgy was very important in his life and that for him a call to the priesthood was a call from God to care for others.

Simon Khoury is from the village of Ibillin in Galilee. He told me his family, like Amer Matta’s family, had been Christian “from the beginning.” Khoury is Arabic for priest, and some of Simon’s forebears have likely preceded him in the priesthood. Simon lost both his parents when he was young – his father died when he was four and his mother when he was 12 – and he admits he did not always follow God’s chosen path. But a few years ago he heard a call from God and changed the direction of his life.

“There are many people waiting for me to be a priest,” he told me, “many people waiting for help.”

As I walked out of the seminary grounds, Bethlehem lay stretched out on the hills before me. What a privilege, I thought, to be born in Nazareth and grow up in Galilee, to be able to view Bethlehem out of one’s window every morning. But yet what a challenge it must be to be a Christian in the Holy Land today, caught up in all the difficulties of the time. I was edified by Amer and Simon’s commitment to serve in response to God’s call.

The following Sunday, I attended liturgy at the Greek Catholic Patriarchate. After the liturgy, a young Palestinian mother brought her infant son to be presented in the church 40 days after his birth. The Rev. Toni Abu Arraj, the parish priest of the Patriarchal Church, prayed over the infant in the back of the church and then carried him in procession up the aisle, accompanied by his grandparents and friends. Father Toni stopped three times to hold the newborn up in prayer and offering, reminding me of the paschal candle procession during the Easter Vigil in the Latin rite. The ceremony culminated with Father Toni taking the infant into the sanctuary and blessing him over the altar before giving him back to his mother.

What a beautiful way to welcome new life into the church! And with new life there is always new hope. Yet what will be the Jerusalem in which this infant grows up? Will it be a city shared by all, Jews, Christians and Muslims? Or will this young Melkite someday join the many Christians who have moved to other lands in search of a normal life? The events and negotiations of the next few years will inevitably shape the life of this youngest Melkite of Jerusalem.

George Martin, a frequent contributor, regularly visits the Holy Land.

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