THE CONTINUITY OF THE CHRISTIAN PRESENCE IN JERUSALEM

Maroun Lahham

Rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary,

Beit-Jala, Palestine

It pleases me to talk about the continuity of the Christian presence in Jerusalem and honours me to be a member of the Church of Jerusalem. I will try to present the stages of the history of this Church,which is long and full of the adventures of the Spirit, that "blows where it chooses". The history of the Church of Jerusalem is no less painflul than the history of its founder and redeemer.

From the start, I will make it clear that speaking about Jerusalem is allegoric; it deals with the part rather than the whole. It is like one who talks about the heart to discuss the entire person. So when I talk about Jerusalem I mean the Holy Land. My speech is organised simply: past, present and flature. The past will have the lion's share, because it is the heart of the matter I am dealing with, then I will deal brieflv with the present that looms over the horizon. I will end with the Riture, especially the questions about our iture asked by others.

1- The Past

A- The birth certificate of the Church of Holy Land bears the following the information:

Place of birth: Jerusalem

Date of birth: Pentecost 33 AD

Family members: 3,000

When the Church was persecuted in Jerusalem it spread to Judea and Samaria. Then it crossed Palestine's geographical boundaries to East Jordan, Cyprus and Antakia (Actes 11:19-20). Although the first Church originated from the Jewish community that existed before Jesus, it also accepted non-Jews (such as Cornelius). By the beginning of the 2nd century, large numbers of pagans entered the faith. This is especially true after the resolutions of the Council of Jerusalem when the Rornans quelled the revolution of Barkochba the Jew in the year 135, and when the gentile Church carried the banner. Mark was the first bishop of the Holy City to come from a gentile 0rigin.

The golden age of the Church began with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. Churches were built in all the places that witnessed gospel events. Most of the people of the Holy City became Christians, and the Bishop of Jerusalern was given the title of Patriarch (451). He had 49 bishops working with him across the Patriarchate. This golden age lasted until the Arab conquest of the Holy City in 638 at the hands of 'Umar Ibn al-Kattab.

The Christian presence in Jerusalem continued during the Arab rule. It was marked by a high level of culture which I will discuss later, and was able to continue in its faithfiil procession by its own strength and local members. It gradually lost many of its faith£il for various reasons: war, the jizya tax (imposed by Islam on Christians and Jews), fear and difficulties in everyday life.

When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem, they found an existing Church, Church authority; priests and people. But the Christians of the Holy Land had become a rninority over time. The Crusaders tried to re-establish a majority status for Christianity by bringing Franks into the country and inviting Christians from neighbouring countries to settle in Jerusalem, but all their attempts failed. The Church of Jerusalem was able to continue in its faith journey by its own strength and its local membership.

The Mamluk and Turkish eras were the most difficult in the history of Jerusalem. The Christian presence reached its lowest levels, and the Christians suffered from abuse, poverty, low morale, confiscation of land, property and livestock, in order to appease the greed of the Turkish governmental officials.

The surprise renaissance of the Church took place in the second half of the 19th century. An unexpected renaissance took place in the Church. An Anglican hishopric was established in Jerusalem in 1843 and the Latin Patriarchate was reestablished (1847).

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch returned to reside in Jerusalem, whereas before that time he was elected and resided in Constantinople. The three churches worked simultaneously, with equal energy, and according to the mentality of the time competed with each other. At the same time the churches, through their priests and delegates, were able to protect the local Christians from the greed and oppression of the Turks. They were also able to establish their official presence within the state (which I will get into later). They helped to raise their cutural and material status, and prepared them suitably to enter the world of the 20th century.

The beginning of the 20th century of the Church in Jerusalem saw a continuation of the Turkish presence, which ended with the First World War, and was followed by the British Mandate and later the Jordanian era. After that came the series of Arab-Israeli wars.

This was a quick presentation of the most important stages of the history of the Church of Jerusalem, by which I intended to point out that the local Christian presence in Jerusalem was not interrupted once, even in the darkest conditions. The current situation of the continued Christian presence in terms of numbers, culture, ethnic and legal status.

B- Numbers

Numerically speaking, the Church has been a minority for eighteen out of the twenty centuries of its history. It had a majority from the 5th to 7th centuries, after which its majority status began to decline. Some historians put the number of Christians at the beginning of the Crusades at 50 percent of the population. At the turn of the 20th century it was 20 to 30 percent. Today's statistics are in agreement that only 2.5-3 percent of the population of Palestine, Jordan and Israel are Christians.

C- Education

The cultural role of the Christians of Jerusalem has been much larger than their numbers, except during the Mamluk and Turkish periods (until the middle of the 19th century) which was a period of general decadence for Arabs. Christian and Muslim alike, in the Holy Land. Ever since the 1st century educated bishops have emerged like Cyril of Jerusalem, his successor John and the Patriarch Sophronius. At the outset of the Arab conquest the Christians of Jerusalem (along with the Christians in the Orient in general) were the bridge that brought Greek thought and philosophy to the Arabs, first through translation and then through their own writings.

Historians are in agreement that Arab Christian literature that was prominent from the 8th to 11th centuries, began in the Palestinian desert, in the Mar Saba Convent and in Kharitun. At the end of the 19th century, the Christians of Palestine helped in the renaissance of Arab thought, spearheaded by the Christians of Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, Egypt through writings, magazines. and newspapers that spread in the Holy Land at the turn of this century

D- Race

This subject is hard to go into because of its obscurity and the difficulty of clarifying the origins of the Christians of Jerusalem today. This is because more than one nation has passed through this region, occupying and settling the land, and leaving their racial fingerprints behind. No one can tell where the Christians of Jerusalem today came from. There have been Jewish converts. Arab desert tribes who converted beginning in the 2nd century, the Romans, Byzantines. and the Arab conquest beginning in the 7th century, to the Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks and British.

One thing is clear: whatever the distant racial origins of the Christian presence in Jerusalem are, they have considered themselves Arabs in language, history, culture, life style, reactions, hopes and suffering for over 1000 years.

E- Legal Status

In this area as well, the Church has lived more than an ebb and tide throughout its long history

1) Right from the beginning the Church was persecuted by the Jewish community because it broke away from it. Under Roman rule it was also persecuted for three centuries, just like all Christians were.

2) During the Roman era the Church enjoyed freedom of worship as granted by the Galerios Pact (311): 'Religious freedom should not be restricted, and every one shall be allowed free loyalty in religious affairs according to the dictation of their conscience.' This was before the more famous Milan Pact of 313.

3) In the Arab Islamic era the Covenant of 'Umar (638) stipulated: 'The Christians, their money their churches and their crosses, are granted protection". In the era of Harun al-Rashid, Christians were given rights dealing with the protection of their Holy Places as well as funds for their maintenance.

4) The Fatimid, Mamluk and early Ottoman eras had no clear legal cover. The first Ottoman Covenant guaranteeing religious freedoms for non-Muslim residents was the 'Sharif Jalkhana Pact' of 1839. In it the sultan says: 'Full guarantees will be given to our citizens where it concerns life, honour and money'. After that came the 'Hamayon Pact' (1856), which stipulated: 'Effective steps will be taken to guarantee its full implementation.'

Before that, the system of "les capitulations" had been enacted to protect foreign Christians primarily and then Arab Christians. Such agreements were reached with France (1535).. Britain (1579), and Russia (1718,1774).

In 1852 the Status Quo system was enacted, putting an end to the Christian sectarian conflicts over ownership of the holy sites.

5) During the British Mandate, Article 13 of the Mandate said that Britain's role was to guarantee 'the protection of civil and religious rights for all the residents of Palestine, regardless of race or creed.'

6) In Jordanian times Christians were granted the status given by the Jordanian Constitution: 'Citizens enjoying the same rights and obligations as all other citizens".

In summary, the legal status of the Christians of Jerusalem went through a situation of persecution in Roman times to a status of dizimma under Muslim rule, then a status of millat under the Ottoman Turks to the Israeli occupation since 1967.

2- Present

Whoever enters Jerusalem today finds a sure and unique Christian presence. And what is said about Jerusalem goes for Palestine as a whole.

In terms of numbers the presence is humble. I can't give accurate statistics about the number of Christians in the Holy Land. The most credible numbers are somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 Christian Arabs in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, or about 2.5 to 3 percent of the population.

But the strength of the Christian presence in Jerusalem today does not come from its numbers (in Jerusalem there are only 10,000 to 12,000 Christians) as much as it comes from living churches that are active in many areas of life in the city and country.

The Christian presence continues and is distinguished in schools, colleges, institutes, universities, centres, spiritual and ecumenical activities, social affairs, and civil and political development.

In recent years the Christian presence has stood out. The Church in Jerusalem has shared the suffering of the Palestinian people, it went along side by side with the people in their struggle for freedom and took leading and courageous stands in the national and international arenas, which is inspired by its past, living present and its hope for the future.

3-The Future

I would like to end my talk by taking a look at the future. I talk about the way I see the future of the Christian presence in Jerusalem. As a son of this Church, I would like to discuss some of the traditional questions we are asked. Although these questions are well-intentioned they show simplistic thinking.

a) The following are some of those questions:

Will Christianity in Jerusalem one day become no more than a number of museums because of the continuing emigration of Christians?

Will Palestinian Christians live under Arab rule with a Muslim majority?

Will Palestinian Christians be able to co-exist with the tide of Islam approaching from Algeria, Sudan and Iran?

b) To Answer

1) The local Christian presence in Palestine has existed for 2,000 years, and will continue. Our assurance comes from our faith in the will of our Lord for us, and from the lessons we learn from history, as well as from the will power ot our people who know very well what they say and what theydo.

2) The Christian presence in Palestine has passed through more difficult times. when they were fewer in number, with less respect for their rights. when they suffered from material, intellectual and spiritual poverty; but were able to withstand

3) The Christian presence within the Palestinian society derives its strength and its influence from the common stand and common expression of the different Churches, from their openness to one another from honest, frank and free dialogue among all believers and all righteous people.

When our Christian brothers and sisters in the West ask what is required of them, we say:

1. To pray for the Church of Jerusalem

2. To consider themselves true spiritual sons and daughters of this the Mother Church

3. To look at the human being in this country as the cornerstone. On this matter, allow me to quote the principle laid down by Patriarch Michel Sabbah for pastoral care.This was expressed in his address, upon his appointment, to all the nuns and monks in the Patriarchate: 'The glory of the Holy Land comes from the mystery of God's presence in it and from the human being who abides in it: He adds: 'In our service of the Holy Land, we have to remain objective and focus on our reality, in order to see the believer in his/her context -as they are- so that they will not be overlooked, or their image in anyway changed, through pressure put upon them to suit the desire of the faithful of the world for them. It is true that the Holy Land has a universal perspective because of the message of faith that emanated from it to the whole world, but this universal aspect should not be allowed to destroy the identity of the people who remained faithful to this Land and to our Lord Jesus Christ (from Baha' as-Salam, 1988, 52-53).

In practical terms, this means getting to know the language of the people of the land, their rnentality and customs, and then, to live and work accordingly. It means spiritual and moral support (visits, pilgrimages and worship with the local Christian communities) also material support for educational and social institutions that bear witness to the Christian presence and its universal message.