Jerusalem 2000, a journey to the Great Jubilee
The Christian Minority in Palestine By Rev. Dr. Antoun Issa
Rev. Dr. Antoun Issa is a preist from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, native from Aboud/Rammallah, Palestine, Judicial Vicar of the Latin Patriarchal Tribunal of Jerusalem and Nazareth, shows us what is important to know about the Christian presence in the Holy Land from the beginning to our days.
The Christian Minority in Palestine Throughout the Centuries
A historical-juridical study with contmporary intenational aspects
There are numerous works which study the history and archeology of the sacred sanctuaries of the Holy Places in Palestine. But throughout Christian history, a living Church has always existed alongside these places. It is “This two thousand year old Christian Community, its origin and its presence in Palestine (1) that this work will examine:
The HOLY YEAR 2000 have already started on the First Sunday of Advent December 1996. Every body is looking toward JERUSALEM, the Holy City. We are called to see in it not only the 2000 years of our Redemption, but 2000 years of Christian presence in the Holy Land, with a very living Church. We are asked to pray for PEACE AND JUSTICE in Jerusalem, where the five components of the Holy Land society should have equal rights and equal duties: The Arabs and the Israelis, the Jews, Christians and Muslims.
This study which looks back in time will interest every Christian throughout the world who has his spiritual heritage in the Holy Land(2). But it is, of course, much more interesting to the Palestinian Christians, including myself. This work will also interest every Jews and Muslim, as they look with us Christians to a kind of common heritage as people of that Land. It is also a call for love, respect, sharing and cooperation between the Son and daughters of Abraham the Semites: Jews, Christians and Arab Muslims. This work will serve during those years of preparation for the Great Jublilee 2000, and after, to seek more love, respect, cooperation, and sharing between the people of the Holy Land. This is our prayer, this is our hope, this is why this work was done and then published on the internet during those years of preparation for the Great Jublilee 2000.
The Christian Church in particular is the minority in Palestine. It is not exactly insignificant, but the circumstances under which it lives are always somewhat delicately balanced. The evolution of this Christian minority is extraordinarily gripping. It is obviously very important for us Christians that Palestine is the birthplace of our religion. It is therefore quite natural that the Church which is now spread throughout the earth, should turn with love and devotion to this country, as if to its “spiritual center"(3), and turn also towards this Christian minority that can be traced back to the birth of Christianity, to those brothers: “Who live where Jesus lived, around the holy places, who are the descendants of the very first ancient church which gave birth to all other churches.(4)
It is natural that Christians take a keen interest in all the historical and juridical aspects of this Christian minority. This church was born in Palestine together with Christ, it became a majority and then, beset by misfortune, dwindled to a minority again. Gradually reduced through the centuries, it became scarcely more than embers in the ashes until it was rekindled in the last century to become what it is today: the remarkable Church of the Holy Places. With such a troubled destiny, it is not surprising that the juridical systems of this minority have been so varied throughout the course of the centuries. The present community, for example, has an internationally guaranteed status quo which is unique in the Church.
The aim of this work is to do a legal study of this Christian minority in Palestine. The Christian Church in the Holy Land is but one of the layers of the ethnic and religious geology of Palestine. Today's level can only be explained adequately by history and thus presents us with only one alternative: to look back into the past of this minority. It is the existential reality of life which gives birth to the law and gradually codifies it. It was like this in Palestine for the religious minorities. Historic facts brought them into being and led them to acquire legal structures. This story of the religious minorities of Palestine, their legal entities, their arrival on the scene, their establishment and development, their make up, suppression, disappearance and finally their revival make for a fascinating film.
Because of this fact, I was obliged to approach this study not just as a monograph on one specific subject and totally limited by a time fiamework, but to make it a "theme". Biblical studies nowadays have imposed this accepted method of a theme, which strives to retrace the appearance then disappearance and the resurgence and development of changing situations in history.
But the Christian minority is not the only one in Palestine’s history of law whose destiny has been turbulent and complex. If we are to be exact in our examination of its laws, we must at least place it in the perspective of the majorities and the other minorities with whom it was born and with whom it developed. It is imperative to place it in its historical and juridical "milieu" as this can only enrich our view of this study. Only in this way can we understand all the otherwise strange details and then finally grasp the current remarkable legal position.
A study such as this would be incomplete if it did not reveal the world-wide international dimension which goes hand-in-hand with this minority. Palestine is piesently at the centre of world attention due to the serious problems concerning its religious, political and social structure:
“This is a complex and delicate problem regarding the possibility for all peoples of the region to co-exist, to live in peace; there are also questions of a religious, civil and social nature which affect the lives of the diverse communities who live in the Holy Land.(5)
One might fear that such a subject would have to be carved up and completely dissected into bits, but thankfully Palestine's history is evident in certain obvious periods: Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Otloman, and modern times. Our basic theme will be the legal theme of the minority that runs throughout its history, even though such a study requires a quick recall of the historical context which is the source and explanation of the legal systems. There will be something unquestionably original about this study. For each period there will be an explanation and an outline of the many problems which arose and took shape. These legal aspects basically make up the successive layers which rationalize the extraordinarily complex circumstances of today's minority. Thus we will have a comprehensive view of this history of minorities, the only thing that allows us to comprehend frilly the present legal complexity of its identity To clarify this process right from the start we now present an unquestionably helpful idea of what a minority really is. Since this concept entered international law at the end of World War I, it has been defined and redefined many times(6). Certainly the best definition - the culmination of lengthy efforts in legal formulation, is the one clearly set out by the 1950 United Nations sub~omrnission for Human Rights. “The term minority may be applied only to those groups of the population that weren't predominant and that possessed and wished to permanently presrve ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics which clearly differ from those of the remaining population. These minorities should comprise fairly sizable groups to possess such characteristics...(7) This modern legal definition of a minority actually covers a reality which has significantly evolved throughout history as this study will show. The definition neatly captures the three main aspects of today's minorities: ethnic, religious, and linguistic. But we will see that there is no possible competition for the religious element as the primary factor, even though the ethnic element quickly became as strong and tended afterwards to always take on a more important role, never managing, however, to oust the religious element from Palestine. This is important to note alongside this modem legal definition.
The Christian Minority Becomes a Majority
Article 1. THE CHRISTIAN MINORITY OF CIRCUMCISION
A.Origin and Development of this Minority
The birth of this minority is clearly recorded: it was born on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and, because of that, it was considered to be the "Mater Omnium Ecclesiarum". This community quickly began to gather followers, in Jerusalem at first, then in the whole of Palestine and finally beyond her borders, just as the Lord himself had declared on the day of his Ascension: “and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”(8)
Around about the years 30-32 the first community was born from among the crowd of people listening to St Peter's speech which was inspired by the Holy Spirit: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”(9)
Some time afterwards the healing of the lame man by Peter at the Beautiful Gate; which had been explained in his discurse also made a deep impression and again produced a small Christian community, despite all the persecution of the Sanhedrin: “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand (10)
Success was instant in Jerusalem where the miracles performed by the Apostles, their entanglements with the Jewish religious leaders and the uplifting life of the community struck a chord deep in the spirit of the people, and even won the hearts of some people in the priestly classes. This process is well recorded in the Acts. “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusa1em increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.(11)
The persecutions, culminating with the killing of Stephen, helped the expansion of the Christian community by dispersing them throughout the country. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the Church at Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Sanzaria... Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.(12)
This persecution thus marked the second stage, after Jerusalem, of the Church's growth predicted by Christ on the day of the Ascension. It is thought that this first persecution affected the 'Hellenists' or the Jews of the Diaspora, and that their group, which was thus dispersed by the persecution provided the Church with its "first missionaries”(13) Thus Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.(14)
Elsewhere, as in Jerusalem itself, in Judea around Hebron and in Galilee, there are archaeological remains which, along with the explanations of ancient manuscripts, allow us to speculate on the spread of this minority geographically and temporally in the course of the first four centuries of the Church. In Judea, the beginning of this expansion came with the first activities of the Apostles outside Jerusalem at the time of the dispersion. It is certain that Christians lived in Bethlehem, the home of Pope Evarist (98-107) who was born of a Judeo-Christian father "of the town of Bethlehem"(15) and emigrated to Antioch. It is the same with Gezer(16) and around Hebron where Eusebius's Onomasticon(17) reveals two totally Christian villages: Anea (Kh. Guwein) and Jethira (Kh. 'Attir) not to mention Khirbet Kilkish(18) which has left us numerous archeological remains. In Samaria, Sychar had already been evangelized by the Saviour himself at the time of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well(19). Moreover it is not certain whether the town to which Philip went was Samaria itself, or Sebaste which became a Helienistic town(20). Peter and John went to complete the work of Philip and to give the Holy Spirit to these new Christians. Peter came up against the ambition of Simon the Magician who wanted to buy the power to perform miracles(21). St Luke carries on, allowing us to pinpoint the continued development of the Christian minority in Samaria: “When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages. (22)
On the coastal plain another incident gives us a glimpse of the spread of Christianity. Again it is Philip who, having baptized the eunuch of Queen Candace on the road to Gaza, is "taken awayt by the Spirit of the Lord: “Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.(23)
But Peter also worked in the spread of the word in the coastal region. Everywhere there, we already find the “saints”, that is to say Christians: “As Peter travelled about the country he went to visit the saints in Lydda.(24) Here he healed Aeneas who had been paralyzed for eight years. Following the miracle, Luke remarks: “All of the inhabitants of Lydda and the Plain of Sharon saw it and were converted to the Lord."(25) Some disciples from Joppa (Jaffa) who were already Christians were called to their town where one of their number had just died, Tabitha, a woman who had always done good works. Peter brought her back to life and presented her alive and well to "the saints and widows" of the Jaffa community: “This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord."(26)
It is from Joppa that Peter was led to take a step with important repercussions for the history of the spread of Christianity. It marks Christlanity's opening to the gentiles through the account of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman regiment from Caesarea. Just like Philip, Peter is led by the Spirit to this pagan metropolis. Enlightened by a vision, he goes to the house of Cornelius where the Holy Spirit has touched this man and all those of his household, and Peter baptizes them(27). This is the acceptance of the first gentiles into the Church. Once back in Jerusalem, Peter had to attest to the descent of the Holy Spirit on these new Christians to justify such an extraordinary openness(26) to his fellow Jews. In Galilee Our Lord himself had travelled through the villages preaching the Good News and performing many miracles. The Gospel mentions Cana, Naim, Capernaurn, Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi. One would think that the Apostles, who were all from Galilee, would also continue their ministry there for some time(28)their families and relations and those of the Saviour himself could only be of help to them(30). Later on, the Talmud mentions the tension between Jews and the Jewish-Christians who were called "minim"'(31) and who also appeared in Capernaum, Sepphoris, Kefer Samai and Saknin. Remains have been found in these villages already mentioned and also in Beisan, Beth ha-Shitta amd Giscala(32) or EI-Djish. Worthy of special mention is Nazareth where excavation for the reconstruction of the Basilica brought to light numerous traces of the first Christians(33). Thus, in just a short time, the prophecy of the Saviour regarding Palestine became a reality. But the persecution brought the Good News beyond the frontiers of Palestine, thus beginning the conquest of the world just as Christ had predicted. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyrus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the Good News about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's haud was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.(34)
Conclusion Thus in a few decades of zealous preaching backed up by signs from Our Lord, the Gospel had been spread even through persecution, and was supported everywhere by the miracles of the Spirit, both in body and soul: the first Christian community was created. Despite the somewhat exaggerated style of St Luke we can well imagine that this was always a Christian minority in the midst of the Jewish masses. However, it must have been afairly sizable minority to upset the religious leaders of the Jewish people and provoke their persecutions of the Christians. The relentlessness of this persecution shown by St Paul when he was still Saul is typical of the animosity aroused by the Christian minority in the dominant Jewish society(35).
The very fact that this Christian community existed raises the question of its identity.