Christians in Israel

Christianity has a long history in the Land of Israel.

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The Non­Chalcedonian Churches

The Non­Chalcedonian churches are churches of the East ­ Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian ­ that rejected the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon (451) on the double (divine and human) nature of Christ. The non­Chalcedonian churches hold the Monophysite doctrine that in Christ there was but a single, divine nature.

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 Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in 1311.

Throughout the 19th century and during and immediately after World War I, the local Armenian community grew with the absorption of survivors of the Anatolian massacres, particularly those of 1915. Before 1939 the community numbered more than 15,000, and was the third largest Christian group. Today, the community numbers about 4,000 ­ in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, and Bethlehem.

Via Dolorosa in JerusalemThe Coptic Orthodox Church has its roots in Egypt, where most of the population became Christian during the first centuries. They claim to have arrived in Jerusalem with St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. 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 community numbers just over 1,000 members-in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a community in Jerusalem since at least the Middle Ages. 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 Turkish period, prior to the declaration of the Status Quo.

Today the Ethiopian Church in Israel is a small community led by an archbishop and consisting mostly of a few dozen monks and nuns (although the lay community is growing), living in the Old City and around the Ethiopian Church in West Jerusalem. Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ethiopia pilgrimage has increased ­ with almost 1,000 Ethiopian pilgrims participating in Holy Week observances in 1995.

The Syrian 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 the liturgy and prayers. They are also known as Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus, who organized the Church in the 6th century). Their patriarch is resident in Damascus. There have been Syrian Orthodox bishops in Jerusalem since 793; permanently, since 1471. Today the local Church is headed by a bishop, who resides in Jerusalem at the 7th century monastery of St. Mark. The community numbers about 2,000, most of whom live in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The Apostolic Church of the East (sometimes erroneously called Nestorians), originating from the border area between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, follows the liturgy and prayers in the Syriac language (East Aramaic). Since 1917, its patriarch resides in Chicago and Kerala (India). The church's presence in Jerusalem was established in the 5th century. Today it is represented by an archbishop.

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