The Orthodox Churches in the Holy Land

As a Catholic living in Jerusalem, I am delighted to begin this new blog in collaboration with Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to the Holy Land.  In the coming weeks and months, I hope to share with you some insights on Catholic life in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land. This will include Catholic customs and feasts, liturgy and prayer, ordinary and extraordinary events, encounters with pilgrims and people from the land and the world, and most of it colored with a smattering of theology and insights on the Biblical and Jewish roots of the Catholic faith.

For many pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Land, the religious landscape of Jerusalem is confusing, if not overwhelming. This is hardly surprising, because as the crossroads of the three great monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - Jerusalem is probably the most complex city in the world, religiously speaking.

If we zoom in on Christianity, we find that its three great streams - Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism - are all well represented in the Holy City.  As if this weren't enough, each one is composed of several different groups of churches, denominations, orders, rites, or communities.

The result is that the unsuspecting tourist or pilgrim wandering through the streets of the old city finds himself/herself observing an innumerable number of Christian clergy or religious, wearing different habits, speaking different languages, practicing different customs and praying different prayers. It makes for a colorful and exotic mosaic of Christianity, but it's hard to make sense of it all.

A good traveler, before leaving home, will study the map and geography of the places he or she intends to visit in order to get a basic sense of orientation. And so I thought that for the first introductory articles, it would be a good idea to first map out the basic Christian landscape of Jerusalem with a short overview of these different Christian communities - as a feeble attempt to prepare the unsuspecting pilgrim for his or her encounter with the complex religious reality of the Holy City.

Let's begin with the Orthodox Churches.

The Orthodox Churches

Orthodox Monk in the Church of the Holy SepulchreThe Orthodox churches count among them some of the oldest churches in Christianity.  Because they almost all originated in the east they are usually known as the "eastern" churches (but we can't exactly equate "orthodox" with "eastern" because there are also "eastern Catholic" churches, as we will see next time). 

In the early centuries of Christianity, these communities were more or less united with the Western Latin (Catholic) Church, despite the considerable differences between them in style, traditions, liturgy and prayers. 

This unity was progressively lost with the passing of time, first with the separation of the Oriental Orthodox churches in the fifth century, and later with the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Catholic Church, in the eleventh century.

The orthodox churches are known to be autocephalous, meaning that although they are closely related to one another in their theology (and sometimes customs), they are all autonomous churches who each have their own head and system of governance. In other words, there is no orthodox "pope" who claims to be the head of all the orthodox churches.

The Orthodox Churches in the Holy Land can be divided into the same two main categories:

First there are the Oriental Orthodox churches - relatively little known in the West.  These ancient churches only recognize the first three ecumenical councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople I (381), and Ephesus (431). They reject the Christological dogma of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which held that Jesus has two natures, one divine and one human.  Traditionally they were called "monophysite" (meaning that they only recognize "one nature" in the person of Christ), but this term is avoided today for the sake of good ecumenical relations. Counted among this group in the Holy Land are four churches:

  1. The Armenian Orthodox Church prides itself in being the world's oldest national church, because the Armenians were the first nation to accept Christianity as their state religion.  They are based in St. James' Church, in the Armenian quarter of the Old City, and they also have an important presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
  2. The Syriac Orthodox Church originated in Antioch and its members speak Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.  They trace their origin back to St. Peter (who stayed in Antioch before going to Rome).  They are located at the small St. Mark's church, which they claim to be the site of the Last Supper and of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
  3. The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in Alexandria by the apostle Mark. Mostly based in Egypt, they are said to form the largest church in the Middle East. In Jerusalem, they are located close to the ninth station of the Via Dolorosa, and they also have a small chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
  4. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also have two chapels in the Holy Sepulcher, but their headquarter, the Dabra Gannat Monastery, is situated outside of the Old City, off Prophet's Street.

The second group of Orthodox churches includes the better known Eastern Orthodox Churches.  These churches usually accept the first seven ecumenical councils, and they include the following:

  1. The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest church in the Holy Land and is based in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  They celebrate the liturgy in Greek using the Byzantine rite.  The Greek Orthodox patriarch (currently Theophilos III) is said to descend from St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem.
  2. The Russian Orthodox Church established itself in Jerusalem in the 19th century, settling in the Russian Compound just off Jaffa Road in the new city.  They also own one of the most typical and characteristic sites on the Mount of Olives, the golden domed Church of St. Mary Magdalene.
  3. The Romanian Orthodox Church is also located outside of the old city.

So much for our short introduction to the orthodox churches.  Next time we will look at the various Catholic communities in the Holy Land.


FaLang translation system by Faboba