Christians in Israel

Christianity has a long history in the Land of Israel.

Print this page Print this page

The Latin and Uniate Churches

Whatever the relations between Rome and Constantinople, there was no attempt to establish a Western Church in the Holy Land independent of the Orthodox Patriarchate until the Crusader period, during which a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was in existence from 1099 to 1291. The office was again constituted in 1847. Until then, responsibility for the local church rested with the Franciscan Order, which served as Custodian of Latin holy places since the 14th century.

Today the Latin Church of Jerusalem is headed by a patriarch, assisted by three vicars (resident in Nazareth, Amman, and Cyprus). The community in Israel numbers about 20,000 (with another 10,000 in the West Bank and Gaza).

The Maronite Church is a Christian community of Syrian origin, most of whose members live in Lebanon. The Maronite Church has been in formal communion 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 yet retains its respective language, rites, and canon law) they possess their own liturgy, which is in essence an Antiochene rite in the Syriac language.

The Maronite community in Israel numbers about 6,700, most of whom live in the Galilee. The Maronite Patriarchal Vicariate in Jerusalem dates from 1895.

The Greek Melkite Catholic Church came into being in 1724, the result of a schism in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. (The term 'Melkite' 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 present population of the Greek Catholic diocese of Galilee is about 50,000; the diocese of Jerusalem, about 3,000.

The Syrian Catholic Church, a uniate breakaway from the monophysite Syrian Orthodox church, has been in communion with Rome since 1663. The Syrian 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, which totals about 350. 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. The Armenian Catholic community in the Holy Land numbers about 900 members, living in Jerusalem, Bethany, Ramallah, Haifa, and Gaza. 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 Coptic Catholic Church has been in union with Rome since 1741, but only in 1955 did the uniate Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria appoint a patriarchal vicar to Jerusalem, where the community today numbers about 35.

The Chaldean Catholic Church is a uniate descendant of the ancient Nestorian (Assyrian) church. Its members still preserve the use of Syriac 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 non­resident patriarchal vicar. Of major significance for the Catholic Churches in the Holy Land, was the signing, on the 30th of December 1993, of a Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel which lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between them a few months later.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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