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The Churches of the Holy Land: a mosaic

The churches of the Holy Land: a mosaic

Naim Ateek

Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land belong to a variety of church denominations. It is a rich mosaic. The following is a very brief historical outline.

Dominus Flavit

Dominus Flavit

The Greek Orthodox or Byzantine Orthodox Church:

(Patriarch Theophilos III) This is the oldest church in the land, and most indigenous Palestinian Christians were members of it at one time or another. Although the official name of the church sounds foreign, the members themselves are Palestinians. Between the 4th and 16th centuries the Orthodox Patriarch was Arab. Since 1534 the hierarchy of the church has been Greek. The Orthodox community is approximately 50,000 members. Nazareth has the largest Orthodox congregation at 18,000 members.

In 1724 the church split, largely over the question of the indigenization of the hierarchy, and a large segment of the church went into union with Rome. They became known as Greek Catholics or Melkites. Today they comprise the largest number of Christians inside the state of Israel with approximately 80,000 members. (Archbishop Elias Chacour in Haifa, Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey in Jerusalem).

The Armenian Orthodox Church:

(Archbishop Nourhan Manougian) The church’s history in the Holy Land goes back to the 4th century when Armenian Christians came to live close to the Holy Places. Although they are not ethnically Arab, many of them regard themselves today as Palestinians. At the end of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries a good number of Armenians came to Palestine, as well as to other parts of the Middle East to escape genocide by the Ottoman Turks. There are approximately 5,000 Armenians living in the Holy Land.

In 1742 a segment of the church separated and went into union with Rome and became known as the Armenian Catholic Church. There are 75 Armenian Catholic families in the Holy Land. (Bishop Joseph Kelekian)

The Coptic Orthodox Church:

(Archbishop Anba Abraham) The church members also came to be close to the Holy Places from the early Christian centuries and to provide ministry to their pilgrims. Although they came from Egypt, they see themselves as Palestinians today. The Coptic Archbishop and the clergy are all Egyptians. The church numbers 1,500 members. As with other Orthodox churches, a segment of the church separated in 1895 and went into union with Rome and is known today as the Coptic Catholic Church. They have no church in Jerusalem.

The Syrian Orthodox Church:

(Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad) Like the Copts, they came to Jerusalem in the early Christian centuries. Their concentration today is in Jerusalem and Bethlehem where they number approximately 5,000 members.

In 1783 a segment of the church separated and went into union with Rome. They formed the Syrian Catholic Church (approximately 500 members). Although the Archbishop is Syrian in nationality, all the members of the church consider themselves Palestinians. (Bishop Pierre Malki)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

(Archbishop Abouna Matthias) This church goes back in its presence in the Holy Land to the early Christian centuries. They are a very small expatriate Christian community, including monks and nuns, who live their liturgical prayer life within their churches and monasteries in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem area.

The Roman Catholic Church (Latin):

(Patriarch Fouad Twal). This church had its official beginning in Palestine during the period of the Crusades when a Latin Patriarch displaced the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. However, when the Crusades came to an end in 1187, the Latin Patriarch was also removed. In 1233, the Franciscans came to the Holy Land and established themselves as the Guardians of the Holy Places. The Latin Patriarch, however, did not return to Jerusalem until 1847. A very important element that strengthened and expanded the Roman Catholic presence was the various Catholic religious orders for both men and women who came from the West. There are 31 religious orders for monks and 72 for nuns in the Holy Land. The number of Latins in Israel and Palestine is approximately 35,000.

Historical note: In 1517 the Ottoman Turks occupied Palestine as well as many other countries in the region. There were Christian squabbles in Jerusalem regarding the use and control of the Holy Places; therefore, in 1852 the Turks organized the relationships between the historic churches in the land vis-à-vis the Holy Places, their respective rights, maintenance, and function, especially in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem areas. This became known as the Status Quo and is still in effect today. According to the Status Quo, all the mother churches that have been mentioned thus far (not their Catholic offshoots) had rights in the use of the Holy Places as specified in some details in the Turkish decree.

The Maronite Church:

The home of the Maronite Christians is Lebanon. This church is one of the historic churches in the Middle East. During the Crusades the whole church went into union with Rome while preserving its eastern Christian heritage. Today, most of the Maronites are living in the Galilee. The number of Maronites is approximately 8,000. (Archbishop Musa El-Hajj)

The Anglican and Lutheran Churches:

The Anglicans and Lutherans came to Jerusalem in 1841 as one entity and established the Jerusalem Bishopric. For the first 40 years they served jointly together and alternated the appointment of bishops between England and Germany. In the 1880s the two churches ended their official agreement and set up separate church ministries where the Anglicans served the northern part of Palestine and east of the Jordan River; and the Lutherans focused their ministry on the Jerusalem and Bethlehem area. The Anglicans were the first to indigenize their bishops followed by the Lutherans – in 1976 and 1979 respectively. Combined membership is less than 5,000. (Bishop Suheil Dawani – Anglican, Bishop Munib Younan – Lutheran).

Four important remarks:

1. Historically, the Greek Orthodox Church has always resented the loss of many of its members to the Catholic and Protestant churches. It is still the cause of much direct or indirect frustration, especially among some of the Greek hierarchy. There is, however, a greater acceptance of the other churches on the part of most Palestinian Orthodox clergy and people. Nevertheless, the wounds have been deep and, on the whole, have not been healed. For the Church in the Holy Land to move forward, there must be healing.

2. There are small groups of expatriate Christians who live in the land and maintain various ministries – liturgical, societal, educational, humanitarian, and pilgrim. Some of them have been here for many years, but they are largely expatriates and have very few or no local indigenous membership.

3. There is also a number of local, free, and small evangelical communities in different areas of the country.

Naim Ateek

Naim Ateek

4.        Since its inception, the Christian Church has always contained Jewish believers who were among the first to believe in Jesus as Messiah (Christ) and Lord. They are established as local congregations of Messianic Jews (between 5,000 to 10,000 members) and Hebrew speaking Catholics throughout the state of Israel. In addition, a good number of the Russian immigrants in Israel consider themselves Christian (Russian Orthodox) and not Jewish. They are estimated in the tens of thousands.
The Church in the Holy Land has survived despite the frailty of human beings, whether clergy or lay people, and it will continue to survive through the power of the Holy Spirit. The challenge before us is not only to see the mere physical survival of the Church, but also the presence of a living, active, and empowered community – one that witnesses to its faith and that continues to engage in serving Christ through the love and service of its fellow human beings. f

Rev. Naim Ateek is Director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem