of the Eastern churches

The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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.

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Tags: Jerusalem Orthodox Church Church history Arabs Syriac Christians