Christians in Israel

Christianity has a long history in the Land of Israel.

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This article originally appeared on The Jewish Virtual Library, a source for information about Jewish history, Israel, U.S.-Israel relations, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and Judaism created by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and is reprinted with permission.

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 Judeo­Christian until the rebuilding of Jerusalem (c. 130 CE) by Hadrian as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Since this date the local Church has been entirely gentile in composition. It was also one and undivided, until the early Ecumenical Councils.Church of the Holy Sepulchre

By the time of the Muslim conquest the Church in the East was already subdivided into various sects, although they seem to have continued to share in the use of the Holy Places. It was only with the Crusader Kingdoms, 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 .

Christian Communities Today

Of the over 7 million people living in Israel today (September 2011), 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: ­ Orthodox, Non­Chalcedonian (Monophysite), Catholic (Latin and Uniate) and Protestant ­ consisting 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 Arabic­speaking; most of them, very likely, descendants of the early Christian communities of the Byzantine period.

The Orthodox Churches

The Orthodox Church (also termed Eastern or Greek­Orthodox Church) consists of a family of Churches all of which acknowledge the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Historically, this Church developed from the Churches of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate considers itself to be the Mother Church of Jerusalem, to whose bishop patriarchal dignity was granted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Since 1054 it has been in schism with Rome. However, in 1964 a historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, was held in Jerusalem.

After 1099 and the Crusader conquest, the (Orthodox) patriarchate of Jerusalem, already in exile, was removed to Constantinople. Permanent residence in Jerusalem was not reestablished until 1845.

Since 1662, direction of 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 Hellenistic character of the Patriarchate.

The parishes are predominantly Arabic­ speaking, and are served by Arab married priests as well as by members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher. The community numbers about 120,000 in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.

Two other historic Orthodox national churches also have representation in the country: the Russian and the Rumanian. Being in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church, they are under the local jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

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 remains with the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission representing the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile. The two missions are each led by an archimandrite, who is assisted by a number of monks and nuns.

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.

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Yishai Eldar is a journalist, and a resident of Jerusalem.