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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.