Palestinian Orthodox Christians struggle against two colonialisms

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  May 2, 2022

The community is battling Israeli and Greek clerical colonization of their lands and churches.

Israel recently issued directives restricting the number of Palestinian Christian worshippers allowed in the Holy Sepulchre for Eastern Orthodox Easter celebrations. The orders drew the ire of the Palestinian Orthodox Christian lay community and church leaders.

This came in the wake of increasing Israeli restrictions on Palestinian Muslim and Christian worshippers in Jerusalem. Last year, too, Israeli forces attacked worshippers heading to celebrate Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, as they did last weekend during Orthodox Easter celebrations.

In the past decade, attacks by extremist Israeli Jews on Palestinian Christian churches in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem have multiplied. Church leaders, from the largest Orthodox community to the smallest Anglican one, have complained about a concerted effort to drive out Palestinian Christians and the Christian presence more generally. 

If Israel’s attempts to take over Muslim holy places in Jerusalem are two-pronged – through Israel’s “archaeological” digs that undermine al-Aqsa Mosque’s foundations, and Jewish settlers’ attempts to take over al-Haram al-Sharif above ground – its war on Palestinian Christians, especially the Orthodox community, has been waged in alliance with the Greek clergy who control the Orthodox Patriarchate. 

Greek control

Orthodox Palestinians, who belong to an indigenous Arab church, are the largest Palestinian Christian community. They have struggled against Zionism since the British occupation of Palestine at the end of the First World War.

However, the community has also struggled against Catholic and Protestant missionaries since the 19th century, as well as against the Greek clergy who control their church and from whose senior ranks Palestinian Arab clerics are barred. 

Palestinian Orthodox Christians recognized early on the multiple oppressions under which they labored. An editorial published in October 1931 in the newspaper Filastin summed up the situation: “If Palestine has a right to say that it has fallen under two mandatories, a British one and a Zionist one, the Orthodox community has the right to say that it has fallen under three mandatories, a British one, a Zionist one, and yet a third Greek one.

“These three mandatories have combined to aid one another in depriving Palestinian Arabs of their rights,” the editorial continued. As “the Greek Patriarchate” supported the Zionists against the Arabs, “all Palestinian Arabs, Christians or Muslims, have a duty to combat these three foreign mandates together”.

Greek control began after the Ottoman conquest in 1517. While Palestinian Orthodox Christians, descendants of the first Christians, had suffered at the hands of the Latin Catholic crusaders, by the 13th century the remaining crusader kingdom had been destroyed and the crusader Latin-Catholic clergy had left. 

The mostly Spanish and Italian Latin Dominican and Franciscan friars returned in the 14th century with the permission of the Mamluk authorities as “guardians” of the holy places, a position they retained until the Ottoman conquest.

When the Ottomans arrived, the Arab Melkite church, as the native Arab Orthodox church was known, was wrenched from Palestinian Arab Christians following the death of the last Palestinian Arab patriarch and placed under Greek patriarchal control in Istanbul.

The church was later divided between what came to be renamed the “Greek” Orthodox Church and its patriarchate in Istanbul, and those who continued to be called Melkites, who in 1724 accepted papal authority in Rome while retaining their Eastern rites. 

This is how the Arab and Palestinian Melkites came to be called “Roman Orthodox” by the Ottomans, or “Greek Orthodox” by the West. 

‘The peaceful crusade’

Upon his death in 1543, the Ottomans replaced the last Palestinian Arab Patriarch Ata Allah with the Arabic-speaking Germanos, a Greek from the Morea (Peloponnese peninsula) who pretended to be an Arab. Since Germanos, the patriarchate has been handed down only to Greeks. Germanos also established the confraternity of the Holy Sepulchre, whose membership was exclusively Greek in composition, as it remains today. 

The western European Christian colonization of Palestine, or what became known as “the peaceful crusade”, peaked from the 1830s onwards, through European missionaries and European powers’ claims to protect the local non-Muslim religious populations. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem established by the Crusades in 1099 was re-established in 1847.

And, just as the crusaders of old claimed that their invasions were intended to save Eastern Christians – whom they killed and subjugated – from the infidel Muslims, it was more than ironic that the Crimean War of 1853-1856 was caused by similar European crusading claims to protect Palestine’s Christian holy places and Christian population. 

The war was instigated by French and British imperial concerns over a Russian takeover of Palestine, especially with the large annual Russian Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Easter, ongoing since the 12th century. The western missionary crusade countered by organizing pilgrimages to Palestine from France and Italy, with thousands making the trip. 

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III is pictured during the Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre church on 23 April 2022 (AFP)

The Orthodox Palestinian reaction was swift against the “innovations” of the “Frankish rite” and the “religion of the Franks”.

As the Latins had lost their exclusive privileges to the Palestinian churches since the Ottoman conquest, the French and other Catholic allies insisted in 1852 that Latin privileges be restored. Under pressure, the Ottomans restored some of these crusader privileges at the expense of the indigenous Orthodox in the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity and Gethsemane.

Orthodox Palestinians were up in arms, and so was Tsar Nicholas I

Arab Orthodox revolts

In response, Russia demanded to become the defender of all the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire, especially Palestinians. It was this demand and its rejection by European imperial powers and the Ottomans that precipitated the Crimean War. Following Russia’s defeat, the French and British pressured the Ottomans for more concessions for Ottoman and foreign Christians. The Ottomans responded by granting full equality to the Sultanate’s Christian subjects and freedom of conscience in 1856.

The Russian church had already shown concern as Palestinian Arab Orthodox Christians were targeted by Catholic missionaries since at least the 17th century, and by Protestants in the 19th century. The Palestinian Orthodox community had been impoverished and suffered from neglect on account of the takeover of its church by the anti-Arab Greek clergy.

The Palestinian clergy and laity intensified their resistance against the corrupt Greek hierarchy after the Greek secession from the Ottomans in the 1820s. In the second half of the 19th century, Arab Orthodox revolts against the Greek clergy intensified across Syria and Palestine, in the context of rising Arab nationalism. 

These revolts succeeded in finally removing the Greek Patriarch of Antioch and replacing him with an Arab. In Palestine, the revolt against the Greeks failed. In 1913, the prominent Palestinian intellectual and Orthodox Christian Khalil Sakakini wrote a scathing attack on the Greek Patriarchate that led to his excommunication.

It would be the Russian Arabophile archimandrite Antonin Kapustin who had the most impact on Palestinian Christians and the Orthodox Church, especially with his purchase of land between 1866 and 1870 for the Russian Orthodox Church. Kapustin built churches, hostels and schools across Palestine, from Jaffa to Jerusalem to ‘Ain Karim.

The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, set up by Tsar Alexander III in 1882, also built schools and churches until 1917. Kapustin and the society were vehemently opposed by the corrupt Greek clergy. 

The First World War and the British conquest resulted in the destruction of church property and the ravaging of the countryside, a situation made worse with the disappearance of funds from the Balkans, Russia and Russian pilgrims.

This forced the Patriarch Damianos to take out large bank loans. The Greek clerical confraternity secured a new loan from the Bank of Greece to remedy their finances. They passed several resolutions drawn up in Athens that asserted the “Hellenic character of the patriarchate”, which was made accountable “to the Greek government”. 

British opposition

In the face of Palestinian protests and calls for Arabization, the British opposed the resolutions and replaced the Greek loan with a British one. In 1921, the British established a commission of inquiry to address only the financial problems – but not foreign control of the church – and created a British-Greek commission to control them.

The British did not trust the local Palestinian Christians and dismissed them as an “insignificant” minority. At the time, Palestinian Christians constituted more than 10 percent of Palestine’s population.

Palestinian opposition to Greek control intensified again when the patriarchate issued statements of support for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration in the early 1920s, and began to sell substantial amounts of church land in Jerusalem to the Zionists. 

The Palestinians invoked the Wilsonian principle of self-determination to gain control of their church. They organized in July 1923 the First Arab Orthodox Conference to respond to the egregious actions of the patriarchate, the British and the Zionists, and to Arabize the church.

The conference resolutions castigated the Greek clergy as “foreign of language and country” and charged that they had “four centuries ago usurped the spiritual authority from the Arab Orthodox”. 

Following the August 1931 death of Patriarch Damianos, they held another conference in hopes of forcing the Greek clerics to replace him with a Palestinian. The conference supported Palestinian independence and opposed Zionist settler-colonialism. The Greek clergy rejected the demands and selected the Greek Timotheos as patriarch in 1935, inflaming anti-Greek passions. Young Palestinian Orthodox men attacked Greek monks in the streets. The situation did not change after the division of Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan following the Zionist conquest in 1948. 

As the Greek clergy continued to sell lands to the Israelis, the Jordanian government proposed a law in 1957 that responded to some of the Orthodox Arab congregation’s demands, although it excluded any rights of the congregation to manage the patriarchate’s property. Due to the objections of Patriarch Benedictus (1957-81), a compromise was reached in 1958.

The new law did not give the congregation a formal role in the management of church lands. On the Israeli side, following a congress held by eight different Palestinian Orthodox organizations in Haifa in June 1963, the United Orthodox Councils demanded that the patriarchate be prevented from selling its land and allowing the money to leave the country. 

Land sales continue

The resistance has only continued. At the end of the 1990s, Palestinian Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jaffa and Bethlehem held demonstrations demanding a role in the management of church property. Conferences in Jerusalem, Amman and Nazareth also raised the issue of land sales to Israel and Jewish colonists. 

At the 1992 Jerusalem conference, the Arab Orthodox Initiative Committee again demanded greater control over church property, insisting that these were Palestinian lands whose sale was nothing less than national treason. 

Meanwhile, the patriarchate’s Greek clerics have used these lands for their own personal, financial and political gain. As land sales continued, in 2018, Palestinian Christians attacked the Greek Patriarch in protest during a visit to the Church of the Nativity.

Similar Greek clerical deals led to the takeover in March by extremist Jewish settlers of part of a hotel that had been owned by the patriarchate. 

The Palestinian Orthodox community continues to struggle against the double Israeli and Greek clerical colonization of their lands and churches. The repression they endure is one they share with their Muslim Palestinian compatriots waging a struggle against an Israeli takeover of their lands and holy places.

If the events of the last two weeks have demonstrated Israel’s determined efforts to take over Palestinian Christian and Muslim holy places, they have also shown that Palestinian resistance remains steadfast and unrelenting in the face of ongoing Israeli state and settler violence.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism