Word Magazine November 2000 Page 10-12



By Dr. Issa J. Boullata

We are Orthodox Christians and we love our Orthodox faith. Over the years, there have been many forces that have tried to weaken our faith, to make us abandon it, to tear us away from it, to throw us into other faiths, and even to deprive us of all faith. But we have strongly clung to our Orthodox faith, finding spiritual life in its rightly-guided doctrines and comfort in its liturgical worship and historical traditions that nourish our souls. Of course, there have been some weak persons among us who succumbed to those forces and who fell away from Orthodoxy; some joined other churches because of material and other interests and some lost faith altogether and chose not to belong to any church. But the majority of us held fast to our Orthodox faith despite difficulties of all sorts.

One of these difficulties in the Holy Land and Jordan has been the fact that our Patriarchate has been dominated in the last four centuries and a half by Greek hierarchs who have not given us the pastoral and spiritual care that we needed, who denied us entry as Arab Orthodox believers into the service of our church in the higher ranks, who usurped our rights to participate in running the affairs of our church, and who have more recently begun to sell our valuable patrimony of church property to our political enemies and squander the proceeds thereof without accountability. Yet we have remained Orthodox Christians because we love our Orthodox faith.

In the past 130 years, we tried by different means to draw the attention of our Greek church hierarchs to our needs and our rights. They prevaricated, they quibbled, they promised and did not fulfill, they ignored us, they even scorned us and had no intention of relinquishing their exclusive domination of our church and of giving us our rights and pastorally caring for our needs. But against all odds, we have remained steadfast in our Orthodox faith and proud of the church of our fathers and forefathers.

Our struggle was sometimes heated and, as such, it attracted the notice and action of the governments. The Ottomans, the British, and the Jordanian authorities ruling the area of the Patriarchate issued laws and regulations to govern the relations between the Patriarchate and its Arab Orthodox flock. These laws and regulations were usually rendered ineffective by the Patriarchate’s evasion and manipulation, especially when the political regimes changed and when the Holy Land went through wars and political turmoil. The result was that our long struggle did not lead to regaining our rights and the situation today is as bad as it has ever been. In spite of all that, we have kept our Orthodox faith and we continue to love it and cling to it firmly.

We love Orthodoxy because it is rooted in the original church of the Apostles established by our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that its theology faithfully reflects His teachings in the Gospel and gives deep meaning to our life. Under the Roman empire and the Byzantine civilization of the New Rome, Orthodoxy was enriched by the contributions of several nations who gave it theologians, hymnologists, psalmodists, religious poets, writers of prayers, mystics, iconographers, architects, saints, martyrs, ascetics, monks, priests, and reverend Fathers of the Church. These were not all Greeks but persons from other nations too, including many from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

The Orthodox faith appeals to us spiritually, intellectually, artistically, culturally, and historically. We love our divine liturgy because it speaks the language of our souls; and when we celebrate it, it lifts us up and refreshes our spirits. It speaks the language of our senses: its beautiful icons around us open our eyes to heavenly bliss, its charming music and hymns invite us to rise to heavenly harmony, its sweet-smelling incense calls up our prayers to God like ascending fragrance, and its sacraments join the material and the spiritual elements of our life and continually renew our whole being. We love our Orthodox faith and we continue to cherish it and live by it.

Yet the conditions of Orthodox Christian life under the present domination of the Greek hierarchy in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem are so bad spiritually that they would invite any other community of believers to revolt. Martin Luther rose against the Pope of Rome when the corruption he saw in the Catholic Church could not be reformed. He established the Lutheran Church in order to continue the faith in accordance with his vision of the Gospel’s truth, and he separated himself from Catholicism. After his revolt, the Anglicans likewise separated themselves from Catholicism. Later on, several Protestant churches declared themselves independent in order to pursue their faith according to their Evangelical view of Christian life. Much earlier, the Orthodox Church itself had witnessed separation from it when certain Oriental churches, like the Coptic, the Syriac, and the Armenian Churches, were established independently at different times, each to pursue its faith according to its understanding of the Gospel’s truth. Spiritual independence from a Mother Church that is perceived to be corrupt or deviant has been a recurring event in ecclesiastical history. It has always been a traumatic event, to be sure; it has always been a painful happening, no doubt; for it separated brother from brother and hurt both to the quick. But it DID occur and it DID bring the needed change that allowed the believers to pursue their faith in accordance with their own perception of the Gospel’s truth.

Am I here calling the Arab Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land and Jordan to separate themselves from their Mother Church? Absolutely not! How can I call them to abandon their Orthodoxy that they love and live by? We Orthodox Christians would rather die than abandon our Orthodoxy, and history has proven this point again and again. But I am indeed calling the Arab Orthodox Christians to escalate their struggle, to be more venturesome, to be willing to accept more risk than ever before, as the 21st century begins. In the first decade of the 20th century, our grandfathers were so exasperated by the intransigence of the Greek hierarchs that, in 1909, they forcibly occupied the compound of the Patriarchate and the Central Greek Convent in Jerusalem, some of them being killed and others wounded by the Greek monks in the operation, until the Ottoman police intervened. To pacify them, the Ottoman government issued a decree in 1910 establishing the first Mixed Council that included lay Arab Orthodox members to run the administrative affairs of the Patriarchate with Greek clergy. In the 1930s and the 1940s, our fathers closed their churches in the face of the Greek hierarchs and worshiped God in their churches without visits from their Greek bishops. In the 1950s and 1960s, our struggle led to the establishment of the second Mixed Council consisting of lay Arab Orthodox members and Greek clergy. But like the first Mixed Council, the second was soon abolished by the Patriarch.

In the 1990s, our struggle resumed: In Fuheis there was an intifada (uprising) and there were others of a different character in Beit Sahour and Nazareth and Jerusalem; in Amman the 5th Arab Orthodox Conference was held in 1992; in America the Task Force was established in 1994; in Israel the activities of the Orthodox Christian Congress were intensified in the 1990s along with those of its supporting local Arab Orthodox Christian councils; in the West Bank the Arab Orthodox people increased the struggle of their Orthodox clubs and societies under the coordination of the Orthodox Executive Committee; in 1998 the Task Force decided to establish an Arab Orthodox Christian Church in Amman, totally independent of the Patriarchate for the first time, in order to be a nucleus and a model for other similar churches in the Holy Land and Jordan. Furthermore, the Task Force publicized the Arab Orthodox cause internationally and brought it to the attention of the Ecumenical Patriarch and all the Orthodox Patriarchs and other hierarchs in the world. The Patriarch of Jerusalem felt the pressure everywhere and he reacted by appointing the third Mixed Council in the year 2000 in an ostensible attempt to show his good intentions.

What I am saying is that the time is ripe to redouble our efforts, to be brave and take further risks, and not to swerve from our long-held and cherished aims. The 21st century will witness the reinstatement of our rights and the return of our Church to its original magnanimity where there is place for everyone in Christian love. This will certainly happen, only if we continue to hold on to our belief in Orthodoxy and escalate our struggle to the highest degree possible, not only in order to attract the attention of the current political regimes of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel and make them enact new relevant laws and regulations to meet our demands, but also to pressure all the world’s Orthodox hierarchs to hold a special Pan-Orthodox Conference on Jerusalem in order to recognize the demands of the Arab Orthodox people in the Holy Land and Jordan, once and for all, and to help them make the Patriarchate of Jerusalem their own in fact and not only in name. At the moment, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is in the hands of about one hundred Greeks continually imported from overseas, while the majority of the indigenous Arab Orthodox Christians of the Holy Land and Jordan, numbering about a quarter of a million persons, are neglected by them pastorally and spiritually. We, the Arab Orthodox people, are persisting at the local level — in our small churches, in our Orthodox clubs and societies, in our charitable institutions and Sunday schools. We, the Arab Orthodox people of the Holy Land and Jordan, can legitimately say:

WE are the Patriarchate, not those few Greeks imported from overseas. A Pan-Orthodox Conference will have to recognize this fact and act accordingly to accept our place in world Orthodoxy as well as in the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

We have nothing against Greeks and they may continue to come from overseas and live with us in the holy Land and Jordan. As Orthodox Christians, we can all share our common faith in love but no ethnic minority should dominate, for this is un-Christian, un-Orthodox, and utterly unacceptable. Four centuries and a half of past uncanonical domination by the uncaring few are sufficient. The 21st century should open a new page for all.

In practical terms, what will the solution to this problem be? In 1993, the well-known Greek scholar, Professor P.J. Vatikiotis, delivered a public lecture at the Centre of Hellenic Studies at King’s College in London, in which he made suggestions for a solution. His lecture was later published in Middle Eastern Studies (vol. 30, no. 4

[October 1994], pp. 916-929) under the title “The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem between Hellenism and Arabism,” Professor Vatikiotis recognizes the well-founded alienation of the vast majority of the Arab Orthodox people of the Holy Land and Jordan from the tiny foreign minority of Greek hierarchs dominating the Jerusalem Patriarchate. He shows that the Greek hierarchs are more interested in guarding the Holy Places than in caring for their Arab flock, He demonstrates their concern for preserving Hellenism and guarding the Holy Places as Hellenistic property coming down to them from Byzantine times. He says that they are reluctant to make any concessions to the fact that history has brought change: they continue to fuse the Greek Church with the Byzantine Empire which is “a thing of the distant past” (p. 926), and he questions the wisdom and future feasibility of their continuing practice of seeking support from the modern Greek state and of recruiting Greeks to fill church ranks in the Jerusalem Patriarchate (p. 926). Professor Vatikiotis recognizes the change that history has brought, particularly the rise of assertive Arabism, the establishment of Israel, and the resurgence of Islam; and he views the insistence upon Hellenism by the Jerusalem Patriarchate as “unrealistic and possibly dangerous” (p. 927). In order to accommodate the demands of the Arab Orthodox people, he suggests that the Greek monastic Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre which dominates the Patriarchate should be separated from the rest of the Jerusalem Church “and be allowed to carry on guarding and tending the Holy Places” (p. 927). And he adds, “The Patriarchate and the Episcopate could then be allowed to evolve into a more local pastoral Eastern Christian Church in closer touch with the local laity” (p. 927). He concludes by saying, “The Patriarchal throne [can] be allowed to reflect more the nature of the local Orthodox flock and laity on both sides of the Jordan” and the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre “would be allowed to retain its self-government autonomy and exclusivist national make-up, while losing its monopoly of access to the episcopate and the Patriarchal throne” (p.928).

While Professor Vatikiotis’s suggestions for a solution are bold and innovative, I consider them only a first step in negotiating a solution. The Task Force is on record as having called for the abolition of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre in its 2nd Annual International Conference held in Chicago in 1996. However, if the Brotherhood, as a separate institution, is to remain a custodian of the Holy Places after negotiations, it is my view that its make-up should not necessarily remain exclusively Greek and that it should be under a negotiated jurisdiction of the newly-instituted Patriarch. Furthermore, it is my view that a fixed proportion of the income from the Holy Places should, by negotiation, be given to the newly-constituted Patriarchate to help it meet its pastoral duties. The disengagement of pastoral Patriarchal care from custodial guardianship of the Holy Places has other financial implications which should be negotiated in detail, especially with regard to the vast real estate of the Jerusalem Church now in the custody of the Greek hierarchy, which should be transferred to the custody of the newly-instituted Patriarch.

As a basis for negotiating a solution, these suggestions show how much more effort still lies ahead of us in the 21st century. And there may be other suggestions for different and creative solutions. At any rate, we should have a practical vision of a possible solution, even as we struggle for ideals. The struggle ahead of us is still long. What we should keep in mind is that we should continue to cling firmly to our Orthodox faith and to love it and live by it. We should remember how persistent and uncompromising the Greek hierarchy is, and we should therefore be tenacious of our rights and clear in our aims and strategy. When we succeed at long last, as we shall, it will not be the Greeks who have lost or the Arabs who have won. It will be Orthodoxy that has regained its rightful place in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Dr. Boullata is Chairman of the Montreal Chapter of the Jerusalem Task Force.