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The Greek Orthodox Community in the Holy Land

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

The Greek Orthodox Community in the Holy Land

This Week in Palestine

January 2005

The Arabic speaking Greek Orthodox denomination is considered the most ancient and most widespread among Christians in this land. The roots of this community date back to the time of the early propagation of Christianity in the East by the apostles. It was the first church to regulate masses and from it originated priesthood and the notion of abstinence and devotion to prayer. Christianity spread clandestinely despite the oppression and torture its adherents were subjected to until the ascension of Emperor Constantine to the throne of the Roman Empire. Constantine became a Christian after the historic vision he had during his war with the Persians, when he ordered his harbingers to carry flags with crosses printed on them. When he overcame his enemy, his mother St. Helena started building churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus was buried and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Like their Moslem brethren, Arab Christians were also subjected to oppression and genocide. The Crusaders wanted people to become adherents of the Catholic faith which was represented by the Pope of Rome. Despite the continuous mistreatment and displacement by the Crusaders of Arab Christians and Moslems, the Arab Christian presence was sustained and resistance continued against those who plundered the Holy Land. Resistance continued against the tyrants until the emergence of the wise leader Salah Addin Al-Ayoubi, who established an Egyptian / Syrian united front and whose main concern was to expel the Crusaders from the Holy Land. One of his leaders was a Christian Arab known by the name of Issa Iben Al-A’wam, who was the commander of the marines and whose mission was to wage raids along the coastal areas of Palestine. It was this division that brought victory in the battle of Hittin and the liberation of Jerusalem. Christian Arabs went back to their churches and holy sites. Western Christians were denied access to Jerusalem unless they came on organized pilgrimage tours.

The Jerusalem church at that time was presided by Arab Christians. The status quo was maintained until the year 1537, when the Ottoman Sultan Salim the First decided to conquer Palestine. At the outset of his campaign, he sent a Greek priest to be his envoy in the country. When Salim strengthened his position on the ground, he rewarded the Greek priest with the position of Patriarch of Jerusalem. Since then was born the legacy that Greek priests would assume the presidency of the Greek Orthodox Church. They established an order which they called the ‘brotherhood of the scared other’ and thus made sure that Arab Christians would never be able to assume any high position in the church. This status quo has been maintained to this day.

In the wake of the historic division between the Roman Church and the Eastern churches, Arab Christians in the Holy Land maintained their Orthodox faith until the Ottoman Empire agreed to allow Western states to dispatch papal missionaries to the Holy Land, opening schools as their base. The French, Italians and Spaniards, adherents of the Catholic faith, managed to convert part of the Arab Christians into Catholics while the English succeeded in converting others into Protestants. The Russians, who were also Orthodox, helped in maintaining the Orthodox faith despite the conflict between them and the Greeks. Various Christian denominations were thus formed in the Holy Land. However, the vast majority kept its loyalty to the Orthodox faith, as they still do to this date.

With the emergence of the Arab renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century, Arab Orthodox Christians contributed to the leadership of the national movement in Palestine. Some of their leaders played a distinguished role in confronting the schemes of Zionism that sought to swallow up land and expel its indigenous residents. They also confronted the Greek Patriarchate in a legitimate attempt to regain communal rights and attain high positions in the church’s hierarchy, and to preserve the endowments which members of the community had entrusted to the Patriarchate for fear of being seized or to evade the high taxes which they could not afford, particularly during the Ottoman era. Unfortunately, the entrusted land that belonged to the community was transformed as property to the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, at the disposal of the Greek Patriarch.

The endowed lands covered vast areas. The Arab Orthodox community held a number of conferences in this regard, the first of which was held in Jaffa in 1923. Other conferences followed during the British mandate of Palestine. They all called for giving a chance to Arab priests to attain high positions in the church’s hierarchy, to preserve the endowments and to attend to schools and to the poor. The conflict continued until the Jordanian government issued Law # 58 / 27 stipulating the establishment of a mixed council that would lead the joint administration of the Patriarchate’s affairs by priests and secular Christian Arabs and supervise other affairs such as the ratification of the budget and the supervision of local council elections in 18 towns and villages where Arab Christians live, in both Jordan and Palestine. The Greek Patriarchate ceased the application of the law upon the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. From that day on, the Patriarchate consistently refused to revive the mixed council but later pretended to do so in light of the Arab Orthodox initiative which was launched in 1991 and in which the Patriarchate agreed to re-establish the mixed council by involving the community’s representatives in Jordan who would have been appointed by the Jordanian Prime Minister and their Palestinian counterparts by the late President Yasser Arafat. The process should have started during the era of the deceased Patriarch Theodoros. Despite everything, the Patriarchate refused to be committed to the mixed council and even refused to hold one official joint session. This rejection was also expressed by the newly appointed Patriarch, Ireneios, who articulated his total rejection to establish and activate the mixed council, which would allow Arab Orthodox Christians to participate in the administration of the Patriarchate’s affairs – a matter that still contributes to the tension between the spiritual leadership and members of the community.

Despite the setbacks, the Arab Orthodox Christians remained active and continued to build national schools, churches, clubs, organizations, welfare shelters and medical centres. This motivation arose from the desire to defend the homeland and be rooted in it, serving the public good in the process. Whether in Jordan or Palestine, the Orthodox community set up organizations that bring members of the community together and which contribute to its development. The Orthodox Club was established in 1942, in spite of the Nakbe (catastrophe) of 1948 and the setback of 1967. The club, one of the ancient establishments of its kind, remains active in the scouts’ movement and it actively contributes to the cultural, social and sports movement in the homeland, especially for youth.

Advocate Nabil Imshahwar

President of the

Arab Orthodox Club in Jerusalem

Member of the mixed council for

the Orthodox community

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