By Yishai Eldar (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
The history of the Christian communities in the Land of Israel begins with the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. After his death, the early Apostolic Church, at least that in and around Jerusalem, remained largely Judeo-Christian until the rebuilding of Jerusalem (c. 130 CE) by the Emperor Hadrian as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Since this date, the local church has been gentile in composition.
By the time of the Muslim conquest, in the 7th century, the church in the East was already subdivided into various groups, although they seem to have continued to share in the use of the holy places. It was only with the Crusader Kingdom, and the paramountcy (praedominium) enjoyed by the Latin church of the West, that contention arose regarding the holy places and continued unabated through the Mamluk and Ottoman periods until the Declaration of the Status Quo in 1852.
Of the more than 7 million people living in Israel today, Christians constitute about 2% of the population (Jews 75.5%, Muslims 16.5 %, Druze 1.7%, and 4.4% not classified by religion). The Christian communities may be divided into four basic categories: Chalcedonian-Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (sometimes called Monophysite), Roman Catholic (Latin and Uniate) and Protestant. These communities consist of some 20 ancient and indigenous churches, and another 30, primarily Protestant, denominational groups. Except for national churches, such as the Armenian, the indigenous communities are predominantly Arabic-speaking; most of them, very likely, descendants of the early Christian communities of the Byzantine period.
The Chalcedonian-Orthodox Churches
The Chalcedonian-Orthodox (also termed Eastern Orthodox) churches are a family of self-governing churches that follow the doctrines of the seven Ecumenical councils, and acknowledge the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Historically, these churches developed from the four ancient patriarchates of the East: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem considers itself to be the “mother church” of Jerusalem, to whose bishop patriarchal dignity was granted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It sided with the other
Eastern Orthodox churches in the schism with Rome in 1054 and since then the Patriarchate of Rome and the Patriarchates of the East were separated due to theological and political disputes. The historic meeting in Jerusalem in 1964 between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, marked the beginning of reconciliation.
For centuries, direction of Greek Orthodox interests in the Holy Land has rested with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, which has sought to safeguard the status of the Orthodox Church in the holy places and to preserve the Hellenic character of the Patriarchate. The parishes are predominantly Arabic-speaking, and are served by married Arab priests as well as by members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher.
Two historic Eastern Orthodox national churches have representation in Israel: the Russian and the Rumanian. Being in communion with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, they are under its
The Russian Orthodox Mission was established in Jerusalem in 1858, but Russian Christians had begun visiting the Holy Land in the 11th century, only a few years after the Conversion of Kiev. Such visits continued over the next 900 years, eventually growing into the great annual pilgrimages of the late 19th century, which continued until World War I and ended with the Russian Revolution. Since 1949, title to Russian Church properties in what was by then the territory of Israel has been held by the Russian Orthodox Mission (Patriarchate of Moscow); title to properties in areas then under Jordanian control (1948-67) remains with the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission representing the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (the church in “exile”).
The two missions have each been led by an archimandrite, who is assisted by a number of monks and nuns. Since 2001 the two parent churches have been engaged in a process of rapprochement and reconciliation, marked in 2007 with the formal signing in Moscow of the Act of Canonical Unity.
A mission representing the Rumanian Orthodox Church was established in 1935. It is led by an archimandrite and consists of a small community of monks and nuns resident in Jerusalem.
The Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches
The non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches are churches of the East (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian) that refused at the time to acknowledge the decrees issued by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. One of the decrees concerned the relationship between the divine and human natures attributed to Jesus.
The Armenian Orthodox Church dates from the year 301 and the conversion of Armenia, the first nation to embrace Christianity. An Armenian religious community has been present in Jerusalem since the 5th century.
Armenian sources date the first Patriarchate to a charter given by the Caliph Omar to Patriarch Abraham in the year 638. The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem already existed during the period of the Crusades . From the end of the 19th century, and particularly during and immediately following World
War I, the local community increased in size due to an influx of refugees.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has its roots in Egypt, where most of the population became Christian during the first centuries CE. According to Coptic tradition, members of the community arrived in Jerusalem with St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine (beginning of 4th century). This church had an early influence on the development of desert monasticism in the wilderness of Judea. The community flourished during the Mamluk period (1250-1517), and again with Mohammed Ali in 1830. Since the 13th century, the
(Coptic) Patriarch of Alexandria has been represented in Jerusalem by a resident archbishop.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a community in Jerusalem since the Middle Ages or even earlier. Early Church historians mention Ethiopian pilgrims in the Holy Land as early as the 4th century. What is
certain is that during the centuries that followed, the Ethiopian Church enjoyed important rights in the holy places, but lost most of them during the Ottoman period, prior to the declaration of the Status Quo.
Today the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Israel is a small community led by an archbishop and consisting mostly of a few dozen monks and nuns living in the Old City of Jerusalem and at the Ethiopian cathedral
monastery and in the western part of the city. There is also a small resident lay community. Since the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ethiopia in 1989, there has been an increase in Christian pilgrimage from Ethiopia, especially for Christmas and Eastern Holy Week observances.
The Syriac Orthodox Church is a successor to the ancient Church of Antioch, and one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. Among its traditions is the continued use of the Syriac language (Western Aramaic) in liturgy and prayers. Its members are also known as Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus, who organized the Church in the 6th century). The head of the Church is the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who is resident in Damascus. There have been Syriac Orthodox bishops in Jerusalem since 793; permanently, since 1471. Today the local Church is headed by an archbishop, who
resides in Jerusalem at the monastery of St. Mark.
The Roman Catholic and Uniate Churches
The Roman Catholic and Uniate churches are churches that are in communion with Rome and recognize the primacy and spiritual authority of the pope (who as bishop of Rome holds the ancient patriarchy of the West). In matters of liturgy, the Eastern churches in communion with Rome follow their own languages and traditions.
Whatever the early relations between Rome and Constantinople, there was no attempt to establish a Western Church in the Holy Land independent of the existing Orthodox Patriarchate until the establishment of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem during the Crusader kingdom (1099-1291). The office
of the Latin Patriarch was reconstituted in 1847. Until then, responsibility for the local Church rested with the Franciscan Order, which has served as Latin custodian of the holy places since the 14th century.
Today the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is headed by a bishop, who has the title of patriarch. He is assisted by three vicars, resident in Nazareth, Amman, and Cyprus. In recent years there has been a fourth vicar for the Hebrew-speaking congregations within Israel. In popular parlance, local Roman Catholics are referred to as “Latins”, in reference to their historic liturgical language. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, the Roman Catholic liturgy is generally celebrated in the vernacular, except at some of the holy places, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity, where the mass and other services are still celebrated in Latin.
The Maronite Church is a Christian community of Syrian origin, most of whose members live in Lebanon. It has been in union with the Roman Catholic Church since 1182, and is the only Eastern church which is entirely Catholic. As a uniate body (an Eastern church in communion with Rome, which retains its respective language, rites and canon law) it possesses its own liturgy, which is in essence an Antiochene rite in the Syriac language. Most members of the Maronite community in Israel reside in the Galilee. The Maronite Patriarchal Vicariate in Jerusalem dates from 1895.
The (Melkite) Greek Catholic Church came into being in 1724, the result of a schism in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. (The term “Melkite”, literally “royalist”, is derived from the Syriac, Western-Aramaic word malko, which means “royal” or “king”. Its use dates from the 4th century and refers to those local
Christians who accepted the “Definition of Faith” of the Council of Chalcedon and remained in communion with the Imperial See of Constantinople.)
A Greek Catholic archdiocese was established in the Galilee in 1752. Twenty years later, Greek Catholics of Jerusalem were placed under the jurisdiction of the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, who is represented in
Jerusalem by a patriarchal vicar.
The Syriac Catholic Church, a uniate breakaway from the Syriac Orthodox Church, has been in communion with Rome since 1663. The Syriac Catholics have their own patriarch (resident in Beirut), and since 1890 a
patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem has served as spiritual leader of the small local community there and in Bethlehem. In July 1985, the community consecrated the new patriarchal church in Jerusalem dedicated to St. Thomas, apostle to the peoples of Syria and India.
The Armenian Catholic Church separated from the Armenian Orthodox Church in 1741, though previously an Armenian community in Cilicia (in southern Anatolia) had been in contact with Rome since the Crusader period. The Armenian Catholic patriarch is resident in Beirut because at the time, Ottoman
authorities forbade residency in Constantinople. A patriarchal vicariate was established in Jerusalem in 1842. Though in union with Rome, the church has good relations with the Armenian Orthodox Church, and both cooperate for the benefit of the community as a whole.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is a uniate descendant of the ancient (Assyrian) Apostolic Church of the East (sometimes called Nestorian). Its members still preserve the use of Syriac (Eastern Aramaic) as their
liturgical language. It was established in 1551, and its patriarch is resident in Baghdad. The community in the Holy Land numbers no more than a few families; even so, the Chaldean Catholic Church retains the status of a “recognized” religious community. Since 1903, the Chaldeans have been represented in Jerusalem by a non-resident patriarchal vicar.
The Coptic Catholic Church has been in union with Rome since 1741. In 1955 the uniate Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria appointed a patriarchal vicar to serve the small community that then existed in Jerusalem.
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Of major significance for the Catholic churches in the Holy Land was the signing, on 30th December 1993, of a Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between them a few months later. In 1997, Israel and the Holy See signed an agreement which deals with the legal personality of the Catholic Church in Israel.
The Protestant Churches
The Protestant communities in the Middle East date only from the early 19th century and the establishment of Western diplomatic representations in Jerusalem. The intention of these missions was to evangelize the Muslim and Jewish communities, but their only success was in attracting Arabic-speaking
In 1841, the Queen of England and the King of Prussia decided to establish a joint Anglican-Lutheran Protestant bishopric in Jerusalem. The scheme came to an end in 1886, but the office was continued by the Church of England, which in 1957 elevated its representative in Jerusalem to the rank of archbishop. This was ended in 1976, with the creation of the new (Anglican) Protestant Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East and the election and consecration of the first Arab bishop in Jerusalem. It is the largest Protestant community in the Holy Land. The Anglican bishop in Jerusalem has his seat in the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr, which is maintained by the Church of England through an appointed dean.
With the dissolution of the joint Anglo-Prussian venture in 1886, the German Lutheran Church established an independent presence in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This community attracted an increasing number of Arabic-speaking members, many of them former pupils of schools and other institutions maintained by German Lutheran churches and societies. Since 1979, the Arabic-speaking congregation has had its own bishop, existing independently of the small German-speaking congregation and the Lutheran Church in Germany, which is represented by a propst (dean). Both clerics share the premises of the
Propstei on Muristan Road in the Old City of Jerusalem.
There are also small Danish, Swedish, and English-speaking Lutheran congregations with representative clergy from the parent churches for the benefit of members who are visiting or resident in Israel. In 1982, the Norwegian Mission to Israel transferred authority and administration of its two mission churches in Haifa and Jaffa to the responsibility of the local congregations.
Baptist Church activities in the Holy Land began with the formation of a congregation in Nazareth in 1911. Today the Association of Baptist Churches has eighteen churches and centers in Akko, Cana, Haifa, Yafo,
Jerusalem, Kfar-Yassif, Nazareth, Petah Tikva, Rama, Turan and other places. The majority of the congregants is Arabic-speaking.
The (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland sent out its first mission to the Galilee in 1840, and for the next 100 years was actively engaged in the fields of education and medicine. Today a small, mostly expatriate community serving pilgrims and visitors, the Church of Scotland maintains a church and hospice in both Jerusalem and Tiberias. The independent Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society maintains a teaching hospital for nurses in Nazareth.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) established a small community in Haifa in 1886 and in Jerusalem in 1972.Membership of the church today includes students of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, a branch of Brigham Young University of Provo, Utah (USA).
In addition to those already mentioned, there are any number of other, numerically small, Protestant denominational groups present in Israel.
Three Protestant communal agricultural settlements have been established in different parts of Israel in recent years. Kfar Habaptistim, north of Petah Tikva, was founded in 1955, and provides conference and
summer-camp facilities for the Baptist and other Protestant communities in the country. Nes Ammim, near Nahariya, was founded by a group of Dutch and German Protestants in 1963, as an international center for the promotion of Christian understanding of Israel. Just west of Jerusalem, Yad Hashmonah, founded in 1971, operates a guest house for Christian visitors and pilgrims from Finland.
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The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem was founded in 1980 to demonstrate worldwide Christian support for Israel and for Jerusalem as its eternal capital. It is a center where Christians from all over the world can gain a biblical understanding of the country and of Israel as a modern nation. The ICEJs
international network includes offices and representatives in 50 countries worldwide.
Freedom of Religion
The basic attitude of the state towards religious pluralism found expression in the 1948 Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel …. will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
The document expresses the nation’s vision and its credo, and adherence to these principles is guaranteed by law. Each religious community is free to exercise its faith, observe its own holy days and weekly day of rest, and administer its own internal affairs.
Israel has many sites which are considered holy by the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Freedom of access and worship is ensured at all of them.
“The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of members of the various religions to the places sacred to them, or their
feelings with regard to those places.” (Protection of Holy Places Law, 1967)
Among the holy sites in Israel which are of significance to Christianity are the Via Dolorosa, the Room of the Last Supper, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; and the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, and Capernaum near Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
The Department for Christian Communities
The Government of Israel does not interfere in the religious life of the Christian communities. The Department for Christian Communities in the Ministry of Interior serves as a liaison office in the governmental system to which the Christian communities can turn with problems and requests that may
arise out of their status as minorities in Israel. The department also serves as a neutral arbitrator in ensuring the preservation of the established status quo in those holy places where more than one Christian community has rights and privileges.
Certain Christian denominations have the status of being a “recognized” religious community. For historical reasons dating from Ottoman times, the ecclesiastical courts of such communities are granted
jurisdiction in matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce.
The “recognized” Christian communities are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Syriac
Orthodox, the (Latin) Roman Catholic, the Maronite, the (Melkite) Greek Catholic, the Syriac Catholic, the Armenian Catholic, the Chaldean Catholic, and, since 1970, the (Anglican) Episcopal.