Churches of Jerusalem

Is Jerusalem a Jewish city or a Muslim city? The answer may be none of the above.

The Benedictine Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion

As is well known, Jerusalem is claimed as their own by both the mostly Muslim Arab Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis. Supporting the Palestinians’ claim is the fact that the Old City of Jerusalem lies within most of the internationally accepted boundaries of Arab Palestine and that its residents are, for the most part, Arabs. At least since Saladin allowed the Crusaders to flee the city with their lives and until the rise of Zionism–a period spanning almost a millenium–Jerusalem has in fact been an Arab city. Supporting the Israelis’ claim is that Jerusalem’s earliest (and arguably most glorious) years, some two thousand years ago, were Jewish and Israel’s clear effective control of the city today. The state of Israel has occupied not only Jerusalem but all of the West Bank since 1967, and considers Jerusalem, including the Old City, an integral part of the nation. The Israelis have in the twentieth century built Jerusalem, particularly in the areas west of the Old City that are recognized by the international community to be part of Israel, into a large and prosperous modern city (one that is, I should add, quite expensive, even by Western European/North American standards).

But however strong the Arab and Jewish claims to Jerusalem may be, walking around the Old City of Jerusalem, it is hard not to feel that the Christians are the ones in possession. The Israelis may be in power, yes, but the Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem is largely limited to the Jewish Quarter, a substantially rebuilt (since 1967) and fairly sterile neighborhood in the southern part of the Old City, bounded by the Armenian Quarter and the Western (Wailing) Wall. The Arabs may dominate the Old City in population, but, perhaps because the theological importance of Jerusalem to Islam is not at the same level as the city’s primacy to Christians and Jews, or because Muslim pilgrimage to Jerusalem is restricted by political circumstances, the Arab presence seems largely residential. The Arabs live and work in Jerusalem, but don’t seem to be engaged in the same range of activities–politicking, sightseeing and worshipping–as the Jews and Christians. Even the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock feel more like neighborhood places of worship in terms of non-tourist traffic. Compared to the Jews or the Muslims, it is the Christians who are the most conspicuous: Christians occupy the greatest number of substantial places of worship (scattered all over the Old City), account for the majority of humanity flowing in and out of the city and to a large extent create the unique international character of the city.

And, surprisingly to me, much of the Christian presence in Jerusalem is fairly recent. While there are many important relics from the historical Christian eras of Jerusalem, the periods of Byzantine and Crusader control (from the fourth to the seventh centuries and in the twelfth century, respectively), many of the Christian constructions in and around Jerusalem have been built since the 19th century, when in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire the European colonial powers established various forms of “presences” in Jerusalem, often accompanied by men of the cloth who resought Jerusalem real estate for religious establishments. This European control solidified after World War I, when Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine became part of the British Mandate, and third party administration was envisaged to be permanent in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, under which Jerusalem was to remain an “international area” apart from Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine. Even if that Partition Plan was never fully implemented, it is almost as if, in the absence of clear title on the part of either the Arabs or the Jews following their wars of the 1940s and 1960s, Jerusalem has remained an international zone held in escrow for Christian worshippers. The international attention on Israel and Palestine continues to bring yet more outsiders into Jerusalem, including especially Christians, keeping Jerusalem within a Christian sphere of influence.

At an institutional level, both the Jews and the Arabs seem to welcome the Christians. The Arab interest in Christianity is probably due to the fact that many of the Palestinians are Christian themselves, as well as a continuation of Islam’s historical tolerance of the Christian and Jewish religious minorities in the Middle East. The Israelis also have many connections to the Christian West, not least of which is that the Jewish Israelis largely came from Europe and the United States and that Christian Zionists had a significant role in the realization of the Israeli state. Bottom line: Jerusalem overflows with Christian churches and pilgrims.

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One reason for the sheer number of Christian religious institutions in Jerusalem is that Christianity is far more splintered than Judaism and Islam in terms of religious organization. As a result of disagreements ranging from the great Ecumenical Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries to the Great Schism to the Reformation, the Christian faith is now represented by dozens if not hundreds of individual sects, many of which feel it important to have a presence in Jerusalem. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the many Christian faiths with a foot in Jerusalem, largely in the crowded Old City.

Chief among the Christians in the Holy Land is the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church. In particular, the Franciscan order claims the title of “Guardians of the Holy Places,” given to it by Pope Clement VI in 1342. In Jerusalem referred to as the Latins, Catholics maintain or share primary control over most of the holiest sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the historically accepted site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial.

The Latin Patriarchate, with its Crusader reference

Next, and historical rivals to the Catholics for control over the Holy Land, is the Greek Orthodox Church. Especially during the period of Ottoman control, the Greek Orthodox Church, geographically more native to the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant than the Western European Catholics, challenged the Franciscans for control of the holy places, resulting in great conflict and a series of lawsuits. Jurisdiction over some of these sites, including primarily the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is now shared, but the precise parameters of control are not codified, such that turf battles, inch by inch and rock by rock, very much live on in the 21st century, even resulting in occasional physical altercations among clerics.

There is a myriad of Jerusalem sites allegedly related to the life and death of Christ, on many of which has been erected a church. This Greek Orthodox church is said to be on the site of the place Jesus was held prior to his crucifixion, the “Prison of Christ.”

Challenging both the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox in visibility if not authority is the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenians (a widely scattered lot, see post of 5.17) have an entire Armenian Quarter within the Old City of Jerusalem, where they have lived continuously since well before the Crusades, striking deals with various conquerers to avoid the expulsion that was the fate of so many other groups. The Armenian Apostolic Church is the third faith to have control over key parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Inside the Armenian Cathedral of St. James, located within the fortified Armenian Quarter

The Copts and the Ethiopians, two more Orthodox churches with ancient and distinctive histories, have significant establishments in Jerusalem. In addition to their more physically substantial holdings, the Copts have built (“illegally,” I have read) a shrine on the back of the “edicule” housing the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Ethiopians maintain a chapel in an odd but atmospheric basement-like area within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre complex, making them two other religions with a presence within that most holy of churches. I have also read that there is quite an active dispute among the two faiths over a bit of roof space on an adjoining building!

Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

Ethiopian chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre complex

Ethiopian convent

In addition to this convent, the Syrian Orthodox Church maintains a chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Two other eastern churches, which are now in communion with the Roman Catholic Church: the Greek Catholic or “Melkite” Church and the Maronite Church

The Russian Orthodox Church’s most prominent Jerusalem outpost is outside of the Old City walls on the Mount of Olives, but the characteristic domes of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene are visible from miles away.

Of the Protestant faiths, the Anglican Church has by far the best real estate, within the Old City just steps from Jaffa Gate and the Citadel. Christ Church also has perhaps one of the most interesting histories among the newer churches in Jerusalem. The church was founded in 1845 by a British organization called The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (since renamed The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People), a group of evangelical Christians who believed that, by converting the Jews, they could prepare the world for Christ’s return (a reading of Romans 11). Christ Church is a very tangible reminder of how important evangelical Christians were in the history of Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel, just as American evangelicals today continue to support the Jewish state in supposed furtherance of some biblical or millenarian goal.

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Even the newest major Christian faith, the Church of Latter Day Saints, has made it to Jerusalem. The Mormons operate a university and garden on the Mount of Olives, just outside of the Old City.

Mormons in the Jewish Quarter

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