01-07-2007 - Traces, n. 7
Holy Land

Christians in the Holy Land:
History and Prophecy
From the preaching of St. Paul to our own days: Christians caring for the places where Jesus lived

by Javier Velasco Yeregui*

The care Christians have had for the Christian community in the Holy Land is as old as the Apostolic Preaching. In about the year 50 AD, Paul took up the challenge before James, Cephas and John, the highest authorities of the Church, to come to the help of the needs of Jerusalem, and to this end he organized collections amongst the Galatians (1Cor 16:1), the Corinthians (1Cor 16:1-4), in Macedonia (2Cor 8:1-5), and in the Roman province of Asia (Acts 20:4-5). Paul called this gesture of the Churches converted from paganism in favor of the Judeo-Christian Church of Jerusalem “grace and communion,” kharis kai koinonia (2Cor 8:4), because it expressed a unity both in space (communio) and in time (traditio) between the Church amongst the Gentiles and that “in which the Scriptures are fulfilled” (Acts 13:27). Twenty centuries later, the Church in Jerusalem continues to be a particular icon of the Church, an imago Ecclesiae, which always presents itself through signs of humility and weakness. She draws her strength from this. In addition to being the reality that has custody of the places of salvation, she represents like no other the wealth of Christian history, together with its contradictions. Eastern theologians like to contemplate the undivided Church of the first centuries as a reflection of the life of God Himself. Rome–Latin Christianity, the Greek Byzantium, and the Christian East of the Aramaic culture represent the very seal of the Trinitarian God which takes form in the history of His Church. That this unity in diversity fell apart is our problem. In their wealth and in comparison with each other, these three forms of the one Church have shaped Christianity in the Holy Land since the first centuries. The heritage of a rich history, lived in a difficult present, becomes therefore a prophecy for the future. These are the keys for understanding the identity and the mission of the ecclesial communities in the Holy Land.
It is difficult to reconstruct clearly the structure of the Church in Roman Palestine in the first three centuries. We know of the existence of Judeo–Christian communities and of communities converted from paganism. It is the time of the martyrs, of erudite figures like Origen, of champions of the defense of Christian logic before the philosophical theological system of the Empire, like St. Justin, born in what is now the tormented city of Nablus. With the legalization of the new religion in the 4th century begins a period of splendor for Jerusalem: elevated to Patriarchate, her faithful represent the universal Church. In those centuries, we see St. Jerome working to offer a translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to the Latin world. Alongside him, monks arrive from Rome, settling in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. In the Basilica that houses Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher, St. Cyril could be heard preaching his catechesis in Greek, simultaneously translated in Syriac or Aramaic, according to the witness of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria (circa 382). Eastern monks in the desert of Judah, the more famous being cenobites, are still there to this day; they did a great work of evangelization amongst the Arab tribes of the desert. This is the case of the Bedouin clan Aspebet, which embraced the faith thanks to the work of the monk Euthemius in the first years of the 5th century, and whose bishop attended the Council of Ephesus in 431, with the title of “Bishop of the Tents.” When the grave split in the Church came in the 5th century, which saw the separation of some Eastern Churches, Jerusalem remained tied to Rome and to Constantinople in orthodoxy. The faithful of the cities of Palestine remained true to the faith professed by the imperial cities. These were the Melchites, men of the Emperor (malek in Aramaic). Amongst the rural populations instead the faith prevailed of those who were later to be called the ancient Churches of the East.

Islam and the Crusades
Islam reached the Holy Land when the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem in February 638. It was a peaceful but inexorable conquest. As time passed, part of the indigenous population (Syrians, Arabs, and others) passed to the religion of Mohammed, while others kept the faith of their fathers with its rites, although integrating with the new Arabized culture. This integration was so strong that the actual Christians of the Holy Land (and the whole Middle East) would be offended if someone were to say that they do not belong to Arab culture by tongue, customs and mentality. Despite all this, each ecclesial form went on characterizing the identity of the increasingly minority Christian community. In this sense, the Catholic bishops in the Holy Land recently declared, “In the East, we are much attached to our Liturgy and our traditions. It is the Liturgy that has contributed much to conserving the Christian faith in our countries down through history. The rite is like our identity card, not just one way amongst others of praying.”
The exceptional parenthesis of the Crusades represented, at least at first, a failed attempt to impose Latin Christianity in the lands of the East, but exactly from this failure was born the alternative proposed by St. Francis. This consisted in a new form of presence, very different from that of the French knights. The “Friars with the Cord”–who had remained on the island of Cyprus, waiting for the moment to come back to take care of the Holy places and their faithful, brought a new form of presence in the 14th century.

The Christians today
Without the patience, humility, and martyrdom of many sons of the Poverello of Assisi, it would be difficult today for Catholics to visit the land of the fifth Gospel on pilgrimage. Thanks to their pastoral work, every shrine is the home of an Arab–Christian community of the Latin Rite. When, in the 19th century, Anglican, Protestant, and Orthodox missions from Russia arrived on the scene, the Catholic Church restored the Latin diocese in the form of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which today counts 30,000 faithful in Israel, on the West Bank and in Gaza, in the kingdom of Jordan, and in Cyprus. Alongside these are Catholics of the Eastern Churches united to Rome, like the Greek Catholic Church (45,000), Maronites from the north or from Lebanon (4,000), the Syrians, Armenians, Copts and Chaldeans (tens or hundreds) who, within the cultural and religious Hebrew world, give silent witness to the fullness of the promise made to the Fathers of Israel.
As in the 4th century, today the Holy Land is home to all Christians, who prefer, despite everything, to be labeled with the one term, “Christians.” In this way, they draw nearer to members of other Churches or ecclesial communities with whom they do not live the fullness of communion (Orthodox, Eastern Churches, and Protestants). They form a total of 2% of the population squeezed between Islam and Judaism. Every historical change has left its mark on them. The most recent and bloody is the Arab–Israeli conflict, the suffering and threats of which they fully share, since they are Arabs but not Muslims, Israelis but not Jews. Precisely for this reason, they can offer, though faced by the constant temptation to emigrate, the contribution of hope and reconciliation that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Mixed up in this history, they can glimpse the prophetic value of this Church (let’s not forget that the most literal meaning of prophecy is provocation). This is why coming close to this, even only on a pilgrimage, is “grace and communion,” as St. Paul said.

*Director of the Spanish
Biblical Archeological Institute “Casa de Santiago” in Jerusalem