Christianity and the Holy Land

Christianity and the Holy Land

Jerusalem is the birthplace of Christianity and the Holy Land is part of the birthright of Christians as well as Jews.  It is also a holy city for Muslims. Many visitors come to see the holy sites and end up running where Jesus walked.  They seldom get to know the living stones who live there today.  Christian visitors too often participate only in worship planned by their leader which is similar to that in their home countries.  They miss the diversity and richness evident in the “home town” of Christianity and, indeed, in world Christianity.  If you travel there, make an effort to meet the living stones (Christians) of the land.

The Middle East Council of Churches treats the Christians as four families of churches – Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical (the local name for Protestant).

The principal Eastern Orthodox Church is the Greek Orthodox Church with a Patriarch in Jerusalem.  The Church dates back to the apostles in Jerusalem.  In addition, Greek culture (Hellenism) predominated and Paul converted many People of the Greek cultural background.  Ever since 451 A.D. (except during the Crusades) there has been a Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.  Along with the Armenians and the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox Church is one of the three guardians of the Holy Sepulchre.

Another Eastern Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church established itself in Jerusalem because of the large numbers of Russian pilgrims.  Russian churches in the Holy Land today include both the churches related to the Patriarchate in Moscow (so called Red Russian) and the churches related to the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (so called White Russian) formed after the Russian Revolution.  A Romanian Orthodox Church has also been in the Holy Land since 1935 to serve pilgrims and guest workers.

The Oriental Orthodox family of churches in the Holy Land includes the Armenian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian (or Syrriac) Orthodox Churches.  The Armenian Apostolic Church was organized as a state Church in 301 and, like some of the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, has remained a national religious group.  The Armenians were not at the Council in Chalcedon in 451 and 55 years later rejected the statement on the nature of Christ from that Council in favor of an older formulation.  There is an Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem

The Syrian (or Syriac) Orthodox Church comes from the Patriarchate of Antioch and was formed by those in that Patriarchate who rejected the Chalcedonian formula of 451 because it put too much emphasis on the duality of Christ.  There is a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem.  The word “Syrian” refers to the Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic and not the country, Syria.

The Coptic Orthodox Church originated in Egypt in the first century.  After Chalcedon, the Patriarchate of Alexandria (Egypt) split into two parts: the smaller continued as part of the Greek Orthodox Church and the larger (the non-Chalcedonians) is the Coptic Orthodox Church.  Their leader is called a Pope and resides in Egypt.  In Jerusalem there is a Coptic Orthodox Archbishop. (Copt is the term used for Christians in Egypt)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the most African of the ancient churches and has traditions dating back to the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon.  Syrian Orthodox missionaries are credited with the development of Christian theology but the Ethiopians kept their organizational ties to the Coptic Church until the 20th century.  They have an Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem.

Mostly as a result of missionary activity on the part of the Latin Catholics (Roman Catholics), portions of the Orthodox churches have come into communion with Rome.  Many of them still use ancient Orthodox liturgies.  The Greek Catholic Church (Melkite) is a church with Eastern origins and practices but in union with the Church of Rome.  It was officially founded in 1724 after a split in the Patriarchate of Antioch and is the second largest church in the Holy Land.  The head of the church is in Damascus and there is a Greek Catholic Patriarchal Exarch in Jerusalem.

The Maronite Church also began in Antioch but traces its establishment to the mountains of Lebanon and its people to the ancient Phoenicians.  The Maronite tradition says they were always in communion with the Church of Rome. There are also small Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic, and Chaldean Catholic communities as well.  The Latin Catholic Church serves many ex-patriots and offers mass in several different languages as well as Arabic.  The Latin Patriarch is himself a Palestinian and is looked to as the pre-eminent Catholic leader in the Holy Land.  Because the Franciscans were granted custody of the Holy places by the Pope after the crusaders left, the Custos of the Holy Land has status among the heads of churches.

The major Evangelical (Protestant) groups in the Holy Land are the Anglicans and the Lutherans.  The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land were founded by the Church of England and the German Lutheran Church with a single bishop in the mid-19th century.  They have had separate bishops since 1887 and are under Arab leadership today and each has a congregation of expatriates as well.

In addition to the four Church families in the Middle East Council of Churches, there are also many small Protestant churches, a result of 20th century missionary movements and the desire to serve expatriates in their own language. They include the Southern Baptist Church, Christian Brethren, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), French Protestant Churches, Korean Presbyterian Church, Netherlands Reformed Church, Seventh-day Adventists, St. Paul’s Pentecostal Fellowship, Danish Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans and Swedish Lutherans.

There are a growing group of churches known as Hebrew Christians, Jewish Believers or Messianic Jews.  The latter often see themselves in continuity with the earliest Judeo-Christian believers.

Another group related to the Holy Land are the Christian Zionists.  They are people who believe that the end of the world is near and one sign is the influx of Jews into Israel.  They are mostly from other countries and come to Jerusalem for holidays etc.  The Palestinian Christians see them as very destructive of the indigenous Christian community since their support ignores the Christians who have been there for centuries and supports the Jewish Israelis.

Because of the hardships of the military occupation, Christians are continuing to leave the Holy Land and the Christian community is endangered in the land of its birth.  Refugees fled in 1948 and 1967 as a result of the wars and Christians continue to leave because of the harsh military occupation and the second class treatment of even those who hold Israeli citizenship.

The closure of the border between Palestinian territories (Gaza and the West Bank) and Israel has caused a desperate economic situation.  Land confiscation, multi-day curfews and closures, house demolitions, the confiscation of identity cards, the building of the Separation Barrier, the closing of schools, and denial of medical treatment have caused Christians as well as Muslims to leave the area.  They want better conditions for themselves and their children and join family and friends in Europe, the Americas and Australia.  At least 25,000 Palestinian Christians live in the diaspora and there is concern that Christianity in the Holy Land will become a dead religion without the presence of living communities.

(A number of good articles about Arab Christians and Christians in the Middle East are available on  Look at the bottom of the home page to access them.  Information includes the Arab Christian heritage, Challenges and hopes, Christian churches in Jerusalem, etc.) The book Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? has further details on this history.

Faith Under Occupation [PDF]
The Plight of Indigenous Christians in the Holy Land

Return to Living Stones index page