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Current Issue
September, 2017
Volume 43, Number 3
  
6 August 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita




Continuing a tradition stretching back to the first millennium, Orthodox Christians gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday in Jerusalem. (photo: Paul Souders)

Almost half of the earth’s 6.8 billion people associate Jerusalem with the Divine. Christians identify Jerusalem with Jesus, revere it as the place of his passion, death and resurrection, and celebrate it as the birthplace of the church.

From the beginning, Christians have called Jerusalem the “Holy City,” a title that reveals the spiritual and political paradoxes plaguing it. Revered as a shining city on the hill, Jerusalem has come to represent conflict as it lies at the heart of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.

The city’s chief church, the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem, has not remained above the fray. For centuries, this smallest of the ancient patriarchal churches of the East has weathered instability. Today, it includes fewer than 130,000 people — Arabs primarily — scattered throughout the Holy City, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.


In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an Orthodox priest pauses to pray during Holy Week. (photo: Paul Souders)

According to ancient accounts, the apostle James “the Just” guided the church of Jerusalem after Pentecost, and was stoned to death about eight years before the Roman destruction of the Temple in the year 70. After his death, 15 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.

The mother church carried on, keeping alive the deeds and words of Jesus and, in 451, the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon recognized Jerusalem as a patriarchate, according its bishop a special status after Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. The Liturgy of St. James, which developed during this period, is considered the oldest complete form of the Eucharist to have survived and is used on feast days by the churches of the Byzantine and Syriac traditions.

Pilgrims from throughout Christendom flocked to the shrines of the Holy Land even after the Muslim Arabs occupied Jerusalem in 637. The patriarch surrendered it to Omar, the successor of Muhammad, provided he left its churches untouched and allowed its Christians of all rites to worship unhindered. The caliph agreed and received the keys to the city. Though more than 13 centuries old, the Covenant of Omar remains an important legal document, outlining the rights of Christians in a Muslim state.

Centuries later, responding to calls for help from the Byzantine emperor, Crusaders from the West seized Jerusalem, returning Christian sovereignty to the city. But the Crusaders installed a Latin patriarch and displaced the incumbent Byzantine patriarch, a Greek, whose line descended from the apostolic period. Relations deteriorated further when the Latin patriarch forbade the celebration of Eastern Christian liturgies in the Holy Sepulchre. These actions further widened the rift between the “Orthodox” East and the “Catholic” West even after the Crusaders kingdom collapsed and the city reverted to Islamic control.


A pilgrim lights candles in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (photo: Paul Souders)

In 1852, the Ottoman Turkish sultan issued an order delineating the rights of the churches in the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places. He confirmed Greek Orthodox control, but granted concessions to the Armenians and the Franciscans. Scrupulous adherence to this “Status Quo” continues, but this fidelity has paralyzed dialogue and hampered restoration efforts.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has eroded the Christian community, especially the dominant Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem. Christians once led civic, cultural and intellectual life. Today, their influence is limited, even in the centers of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. In 1948, about 20 percent of the people in what is today Israel and Palestine was Christian, mostly Orthodox. Today, fewer than 2 percent remain. And whereas the patriarchal church of Jerusalem once commanded the allegiance of most Christians in the Holy Land, today only about half remain in the Orthodox Church.

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

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