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The Invisible Christians of the Holy Land

Sandro Magister

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They have come to Israel from Russia and Ukraine. They are more numerous than the members of the historical Churches, but they are not included in any tally. Observant Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics are all competing for them.

ROMA, March 28, 2005 -- 15,000 pilgrims from all over the world came for the Latin-rite celebration of Easter in Jerusalem this year, significantly more than in years gone by.

15,000 is also the number of Christians who live in the holy city today.

But these are not gaining in numbers; they are diminishing. In 1948, there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem. Normal demographic growth should have increased their numbers today to 120,000.

And the number of Christians has fallen sharply all over the Holy Land. A century ago, they were 10 percent of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. Today they are less than 2 percent: about 130,000 in Israel, and 50,000 in the Palestinian territories and in Gaza.

But there are also Christians who are not counted -- and if they were, they would revolutionize these statistics.

Elisa Pinna, an expert on international religious questions for the news agency ANSA, calls them "the invisible Christians" in her recent investigative book on "The Twilight of Christianity in Palestine."

Elisa Pinna writes:

They are the most mysterious Christians of the Holy Land: the non-Jewish Jews, Christians incognito. They have never been Jewish, but they pretend to be so for the sake of convenience. It is a little-known reality, and one that is rarely discussed, because many find it embarrassing. This reality dates from the great immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union which took place during the 1980's and '90's.

Thanks to the law permitting their return, in just four years, from 1989 to 1993, more than a million Russian and Ukrainian Jews arrived in Israel, giving rise to the greatest 'alja,' or ascent to the promised land, since the end of the second world war. These 'olim,' new Israeli citizens, were sent to the areas where it was most necessary to balance the Arab demographic pressure in Israel, or in the Palestinian territories. A conspicuous number of them have established themselves in Galilee, at Nazareth.

But many of the immigrants were not Jewish at all. The first to discover this were the Orthodox rabbis, who were indignant at finding out that the new arrivals were totally ignorant of the teachings of the Talmud and little disposed to respect the norms and prohibitions, especially in dietary matters.

A study conducted in 1999 illustrates the scope of the phenomenon: of the approximately 86,000 new immigrants taken into consideration, all of them recognized as Israeli citizens by the authorities of the state of Israel, 53 percent could not be considered Jewish according to the law, because they did not have a Jewish mother, and 38 percent did not even have a Jewish father. It is not known how many of these are Christians, or what their real religious identity is. Many believe that these new Israeli Christians are even more numerous than the Palestinian Arab Christians. '400-500,000 non-Jews have come from Russia, and most of them are Christian,' says Aristarchos, the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem. 'They are an ocean; it is difficult to say how many they are,' confirms the Latin bishop for the Christians in Israel, Boutros Marcuzzo. But he clarifies that many of them are de facto non-believers, or atheists, and cannot easily be marked down officially as Christians.

The Israeli authorities hope that many of these immigrants without any religious identity will be assimilated by the Jewish majority, in part through the family ties many of them have with authentic Jews. [...] In order to confront the phenomenon of the non-Jewish Russian immigrants, a governmental organization was created at the end of the 1990's: this was the Institute of Jewish Studies, and it was charged with promoting the Judaizing of new non-Jewish Israelis, who number about 250,000, according to the organization's estimates. So far, about 2,500 immigrants have been involved in the institute's initiatives.

But an underground war for conversions has broken out. Or it might be better to say, from the point of view of the Christian Churches, that a "re-evangelization" campaign has begun, in defense of the immigrants' original Christian identity. The newcomers are mostly Russian and Ukrainian, and as a result the overwhelming majority of them are Orthodox. But the crisis of the Greek patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is paralyzed by a struggle over leadership and by real economic and financial problems, prevents the Orthodox Church from adequately facing the challenge.

This has created an unforeseen opportunity for the initiative of the Catholic Church, which has hastened to send a dozen Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking priests into this new area of evangelization, right in the middle of Jewish colonies and settlements. Their mission is a delicate one and requires discretion. It might lead to serious problems with the Israelis, for whom the newcomers' conversion to Judaism is an objective they cannot renounce. But this could also create serious complications with the Orthodox, who have for years engaged in a controversy with Catholics over proselytism in Ukraine and Russia: Catholic activism in those countries is one of the thorniest matters of contention between the Vatican and the patriarchate of Moscow. The extension of this controversy to the Holy Land could have serious consequences for the relationship between the two Churches. For this reason, no one at the Latin patriarchate talks about the activity of these priests among the immigrants. Officially speaking, they do not exist.

Elisa Pinna's book is of great interest. It effectively recounts the difficulties of the Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, the unstable equilibrium at the Holy Sepulcher among the various Christian confessions, the resistance of the Armenian enclave, the Zionist activism of the evangelical Christians, the Muslim reconquest of Bethlehem... It is, in short, a voyage among the Christian communities in the Holy Land, which are surrounded by many dangers, faced with the temptation of emigration, and too often forgotten by Christians living in Europe and the rest of the world.

As an effort to express solidarity with them, a collection of money for Christians in the Holy Land is usually made on Good Friday in Catholic churches throughout the world.

This year the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Ignace Moussa I Daoud, made the request at the beginning of Lent, with an appeal to the bishops and nuncios of the whole world. The tradition goes back to the time of the primitive Church. The apostle Paul himself asked the communities in Asia Minor to support their brethren in Jerusalem.

But who are the Christians -- the "visible" ones -- living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and to which Churches do they belong? Here is an overview taken from the concluding section of the book by Elisa Pinna:

All the Churches In and Around Jerusalem

THE ORTHODOX PATRIARCHATE

The Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem was instituted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and took over the former territory of the patriarchate of Antioch. Like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, Jerusalem increasingly distanced itself from Latin Christianity, until the schism of 1054 confirmed by reciprocal excommunications between Rome and Byzantium.

Since 1534, the patriarchs of Jerusalem have all been of Greek origin, a cause of rather serious tensions with the Arabic-speaking clergy. The patriarch is assisted by a Holy Synod made up of eighteen members named by the patriarch himself, and is chosen from among the members of a monastic fraternity, the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, instituted in the 16th century, which today counts about ninety religious of Greek origin, and four Palestinians.

The Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land counts about 65,000 faithful, of whom 45,000 live in Israel and 20,000 in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. These figures do not include the Orthodox of Russian origin who immigrated to Israel as Jews.

THE MELKITE CHURCH

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the term "Melkite" (from the Syriac word meaning "king") indicated those in the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria who aligned themselves with the decrees of the council on the theological level, and with Byzantium on the political level, while the majority of those in the three patriarchates displayed an intolerance for imperial centralization.

In the 18th century, as a result of the growing influence of the Catholic West in the Middle East and the preaching of the Jesuits, Capuchins, and Carmelites, a pro-Catholic movement formed in the Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch, and took the ancient name "Melkite." In 1729, the split was made official with the birth of the Catholic patriarchate of the Greek Melkites, which quickly spread to Palestine and Egypt as well.

The Melkite Church counts approximately 50,000 faithful in Israel, concentrated above all in Galilee, and 3,000 in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

THE LATIN PATRIARCHATE

The Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem constitutes the hierarchical organization of the Roman rite Catholic community in Palestine. The first Latin patriarch was installed in Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099. His successors carried out their functions in the holy city until its reconquest by Saladin, in 1187, and then found refuge in the crusade stronghold of St. Jean d'Acre. After this also fell, in 1291, the patriarchate continued with office holders who were regularly named by the popes but who lived in Europe. In 1847, changes in political conditions made possible the return of the patriarchal see to Ottoman Jerusalem. Since 2003, a bishop of the patriarchate has expressly dedicated himself to the "pastoral care of the Catholic faithful of Jewish expression" living in the Holy Land, who number a few hundred.

There are 15,000 Latin Catholics in Israel, and 10-15,000 in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

THE MARONITE CHURCH

Born in the 4th century with the preaching of Saint Maron, the Maronite Church assumed a distinct identity in the 8th century, constituting a Christian enclave in the mountains of Lebanon capable of resisting the progressive Islamization of the surrounding territories. A patriarch "of Antioch and all the East" was placed at the head of this Church. An ally of the crusaders, in 1182 the Maronite Church declared its union with Rome. The Maronites later found support in France for their opposition to Ottoman domination.

The 5,000 Maronites in the Holy Land are mostly concentrated in Galilee.

THE ASSYRIAN CHURCH

The Assyrian Church was born from the Christian communities that had been rooted in Mesopotamia since the 2nd century, which in the 3rd century found themselves subject to Iran's Sassanid empire, and thus outside of the political, cultural, and theological universe of the Roman empire. In their relative isolation from the West, the Christians of Mesopotamia established for themselves an ecclesial organization headed by a patriarch "catholicos," who resided in the capital of Persia. They were influenced by the theology of the Antioch school, and accepted the positions of Nestorius. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned these positions, and at the end of the century the Nestorians were expelled from Roman territory, and were welcomed by the Assyrian Church.

The Nestorian missionaries extended the Assyrian Church into India, Tibet, China, and Mongolia. Their influence in the Sassanid empire was significant: in 614, when the Persians occupied Jerusalem, the relics kept in the basilica of Constantine were sent to the Sassanid capital as a gift to Empress Meryam, who was a Nestorian Christian. The influence of the Nestorian Church continued even after the Arab conquest. When the Abbasid caliphs moved the capital of their empire to Baghdad, this also became the see of the catholicos. The end of the Assyrian Church's splendor was marked by the invasion by Tamerlane's Mongols. In the 16th century, the Assyrian Church was reduced to a tiny contingent in eastern Anatolia, northern Mesopotamia, and India.

The Assyrian Church's members in the Holy Land have dwindled to just a few dozen families.

THE CHALDEAN CHURCH

The Chaldean Church was born in the 16th century from a schism in the Assyrian Church. Already by the 15th century the office of the catholicos had become hereditary, being passed down within the same family. This raised the opposition of groups that felt that they were marginalized. In 1552, the election of yet another patriarch from within the dominant family met with explicit opposition from some bishops, who selected their own patriarch and sought protection from Rome. Pope Julius III granted their request and validated the nomination of the schismatic patriarch, conferring upon him the title of patriarch of the Chaldean Catholics.

The Chaldeans also have just a slight presence in the Holy Land: a few families in the area of Haifa.

THE APOSTOLIC ARMENIAN CHURCH

The Armenians were the first people to convert to Christianity as a group, at the beginning of the 4th century. They rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and like the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian Churches they embraced Monophysism, the Christological doctrine condemned by the council.

The institution of the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem followed the Arab conquest of the city, which deprived the Greek Orthodox Church of the support of the Byzantine empire. The first Armenian patriarch, Bishop Abraham, was recognized in 638 by Caliph Omar.

1,500 Armenians live in Jerusalem, and a few hundred others are dispersed throughout the Palestinian territories and Israel.

THE COPTIC CHURCH

The decrees of Chalcedon were rejected by the great majority of the Egyptian Church. So there were two Churches in Egypt: one faithful to Chalcedon, with a patriarch in Alexandria, and one that was Monophysite, whose patriarch lived in the monastery of Saint Makarios, in the desert. The Arab invasion of 641 signaled the beginning of the Copts' decline.

The Coptic Church in the Holy Land numbers a few dozen monks in Jerusalem.

THE SYRIAN CHURCH

In Antioch, as in Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon provoked a rupture in the Christian community. The city of Edessa was, for the Syrian Monophysites, what the monasteries of the desert were for the Copts. Also called Jacobites, from the name of the bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradi, the Syrians took root far away from the coasts of the Mediterranean. They were predominantly influenced by Byzantium, and integrated themselves within the new Arab-Islamic structures, assuming administrative responsibilities and contributing to the translation of Greek and Persian writings, which the Abbasid caliphs had promoted. Like the Nestorians of the Assyrian Church, the Syrians pushed deeply into Asia. They declined between the 13th and 15th centuries, under the pressure of the Mongol invasions.

There are about three hundred Syrians in the Holy Land, two hundred of whom live in Jerusalem.

THE ETHIOPIAN CHURCH

Although its formal autonomy from the Coptic Church is of fairly recent date (dating to a 1948 accord that led to the election of the first Ethiopian metropolitan in 1951), the roots of the Ethiopian Church are very ancient: Christianity became the state religion in 330 at the decision of Emperor Ezana. According to their tradition, the "nine saints" arrived in Ethiopia at the end of the 5th century, fleeing the territory of the Byzantine empire because of their opposition to the decisions of Chalcedon. Their influence led to a rapid spread of Christianity in Ethiopia, superimposed upon pre-existing Jewish elements like circumcision and certain dietary customs.

The faithful of the Ethiopian Church in the Holy Land total about a hundred persons, who are concentrated in Jerusalem.

THE ARMENIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

An initial attempt to reunite the Armenian Church with Rome took place at the time of the crusades, when the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia was an important ally for the Christian armies. After this, the preaching of the Dominicans led to the formation of Armenian-Catholic communities, to which Pope Benedict XIV assigned a patriarch in 1742. The patriarchal see has been located in Istanbul since 1829.

The Armenian Catholic Church counts a few dozen families in the Holy Land -- in Jerusalem, Beit Jala, Haifa, Nazareth, and Ramallah.

THE COPTIC CATHOLIC CHURCH

In the wake of the Franciscan presence in Egypt, the Capuchins founded a mission in Cairo in 1630, followed in 1675 by the Jesuits. The fruit of this preaching was the formation of Catholic Coptic communities which have had their own patriarchate since 1824.

There are only a few religious left in the Holy Land to witness to the presence of the Coptic Catholic Church.

THE SYRIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

Catholic preaching in Syria during the 17th century led to the formation of communities in favor of union with Rome. The patriarchate was initially established in Aleppo, but after persecutions and massacres the Syrian Catholic Church finally found refuge in Lebanon.

There are between two hundred and three hundred Syrian Catholics in the Holy Land, dispersed in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Lod, Haifa, and Bethlehem.

THE ETHIOPIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

In 1622, Ethiopian emperor Susenyos, after allying himself with Portugal against the Turks, proclaimed Catholicism the state religion. But in 1636, a new sovereign expelled the Catholics and closed Ethiopia to missionary activity. Catholic preaching was begun again at the end of the 19th century, and more substantially during the Italian occupation from 1935 to 1941. The Ethiopian Catholic Church was established in 1961.

The Ethiopian Catholics in the Holy Land are limited to a meager group of monks and religious.

The book:

Elisa Pinna, "Tramonto del cristianesimo in Palestina [The Twilight of Christianity in Palestine]," Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 2005. Not available in English.

Read the entire article on the Chiesa.Espress website (new window will open).

Posted: 13 Jul 05



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