The history of the Christian communities in the Land of Israel begins with the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. After His death and resurrection, the early Apostolic Church, at least that which resided in and around Jerusalem, remained Judeo-Christian until the rebuilding of Jerusalem (c. 130 C.E.) as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina by Emperor Hadrian. 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 Churches, although they seem to have continued to share in the use of the holy sites. 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 Mameluke and Ottoman periods, until the declaration of the Status Quo in 1852.
According to the most recent statistics available, of the more than 6.4 million people living in Israel today, about 1.4 million are not Jewish. Of these, about 123,000 are Christians. This data does not include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where no census has been conducted since 1967. At that time, the Christian population of these areas was roughly estimated at 33,000. It should be noted that the Christian population in Judea, Samarea and Gaza has decreased in recent years.
The communities may be divided into four basic categories – Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian (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 Arabic-speaking 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 Greek-Orthodox 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 of 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 Sepulchre, 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 Sepulchre. The community numbers about 50,000, primarily in Jerusalem and the Galilee, with a similar number in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and neighbouring countries included in the patriarchate.
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 ened with the Russian Revolution.
Since 1949, title to Russian church properties in what was by then the State 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 archimanderite and consists of a small community of monks and nuns resident in Jerusalem.
For many years in centuries past, the Georgian Orthodox Church maintained a presence in the Holy Land. After Georgia gained its independence, a number of Georgian Orthodox monks cane to live in Jerusalem under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Non-Chalcedonian Churches
He Non-Chalcedonian 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 the Christ. The non-Chalcedonian 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 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. Before 1939 it numbered more than 15,000, and was the third largest Christian group. Today, the community numbers fewer than 2,500-3,000 of whom live in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter, with others living in Haifa, Jaffa, Ramallah, Bethlehem (and Amman, Jordan).
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 Mameluke 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 about 1,500 members- in Jerusalem and Ramallah primarily.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has maintained a community in Jerusalem since at least the middle ages. Early Church historians mention Ethiopian 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 sites, 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 living in the Old City and around the Ethiopian Church in West Jerusalem. With the immigration of Ethiopians to Israel, the lay community has grown to some degree over the past 20 Years. Since the re-establishment of diplomatic between Israel and Ethiopia, pilgrimage has also increased.
The Syrian Orthodox Church is a successor to the ancient Church of Antioch and one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. Amongst 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 consists of a few families only, most of which Nazareth, Haifa, Jericho, Ramallah, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.
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 has resided in Chicago and Kerala (India). The church's presence in Jerusalem was established in the 5th century. Today it is represented by an archbishop.
Communities in Israel - Part II
Communities in Israel - Part III