One hundred years ago, Sir Edmund Allenby and the soldiers of Britain’s 10th Light Horse Regiment passed through Jaffa Gate, an imposing entrance into the Old City of Jerusalem. Their victory ended four centuries of Ottoman rule and hammered the final golden spike in the British Mandate for Palestine. Britain inherited a small, remote backwater scarcely visited by the non-religious and mostly controlled by various Church bodies, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, an ethnically Greek ecclesiastical body that frequently feuded with its majority Arab congregation. “The attempt to preserve [the Patriarchate] less as the Church of the Palestine Orthodox than as an outpost of Hellenism…was a source…of increasing discouragement and bitterness to the Orthodox Arabs of the country,” wrote British Military Governor Ronald Storrs.
For many, the situation in Jerusalem today is all too similar. Greek Orthodox Palestinians are still subject to a Patriarchate composed entirely of Greeks, even as the other denominations in the city have undergone processes of “Arabization” over the last few decades. The Greek Church has remained a bastion of foreign rule and an island of cozy Christian relations with the State of Israel. Its increasingly dire financial straits have prompted leases and sales of Church land both inside and outside Jerusalem, with resultant tensions and calls for reform. Greek Orthodox Palestinians generally side with the national Palestinian resistance movement against the entrenched, foreign power structure of their church. Should the Patriarchate capitulate to those constituents, Israel will lose one of its most important institutional allies in Jerusalem—and could be forced to reconsider its policy in the city altogether.
Dissatisfaction with the Patriarchate among the Palestinian Greek Orthodox predates British rule: The Church began purchasing land in Palestine from the Ottomans in the late 1800s, and Patriarchate elites made the decisions about how the land would be used. The community called for reforms in 1872, demanding the creation of a mixed council of Arabs and Greeks to run Church affairs. These demands went ignored, and later ones were similarly rejected. During the 1980s, Palestinian nationalism in many Christian communities and subsequent pressures on European ecclesiastical elites led to the appointments of Arabs as senior clergy members in the Anglican, Melkite Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic churches. Christians began to assert their presence and raise their voices in the Palestinian struggle.
But the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest and most influential in Palestine, was conspicuously silent. No Arab members were elected to the Patriarchate, and the church maintained a close relationship with Israel. The Patriarchate had finalized huge long-term leases of extensive Church lands in Jerusalem during the 1950s, signing away development rights to the Jewish National Fund, which carries out projects on behalf of Israelis. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate showed no signs of sacrificing this bond in favor of solidarity with its Palestinian congregation. Tensions reached a boiling point in 2004, when further sales of Church lands in Jerusalem, this time to the right-wing Israeli settler organization Ateret Cohanim, led to the dismissal of Patriarch Irenaios I. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wary of a possibly more hostile leader, intended to withhold recognition of his replacement, Theophilos III, if he did not fulfill the terms of the Ateret Cohanim deals. Theophilos yielded, and the status quo continued unabated.
Last fall, the specter of Patriarchate duplicity reared its ugly head again. Reports surfaced that the Church was selling off valuable assets in Jerusalem and elsewhere at a fraction of their worth. One area in Jerusalem’s center sold to a shell corporation registered in a tax haven for the strikingly low sum of $3.3 million. Israel’s attempt to pass a bill enabling state expropriation of recently sold land angered the Patriarchate, which wants to assure clients that the land they inherit won’t be seized. The Church threatened to close the Holy Sepulchre in the face of this threat to its business interests, and the Israeli government eventually backed down. Scores of Christian pilgrims were turned away, all so that the Patriarchate could attract future clients.
The State of Israel has not even provided as much as an empty pledge to the Palestinian churchgoing community, often openly siding with the Patriarchate and actively undermining the congregation’s efforts to hold on to their land. But the community seems hopeful that things will change. During October and November of last year, Orthodox Palestinians held rallies, petitioned for support on social media, filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the land sales, and even accosted the Patriarch himself: Residents of Beit Jala, a majority Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem, sent a letter to Theophilos requesting he not attend the town’s Christmas festivities. The Patriarchate has at least acknowledged the message. “There are individuals who have their own agenda to attack us and slander us,” Theophilos responded. “We are a religious institution with a spiritual mission here for more than 2,000 years.”
As long as the Church does what Israel wants, that mandate might extend for another 2,000. In times of leadership transition, such as when Irenaios resigned back in 2005, the state ensured the successor would continue his policies. Recently, the Church has resolved to profit off of its land, and the beneficiaries of the sales have been Israeli investors and companies. The state is happy to let this happen while cultivating a close relationship with the Patriarch. In December 2016, Theophilos met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, praising Israel for its guarantee of full religious freedom for all inhabitants. This goodwill is not extended, however, to Christian denominations and figures that resist Patriarchate and state policies. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior frequently takes steps to curb entry for Christian priests who are more outspoken against Israel. Israel is evidently only comfortable with a Christian presence if it aids and abets the state’s interests and, most importantly, helps consolidate its control over territory in Jerusalem.
The latest fervor over the Patriarchate’s policies showcases the fragility of this strategy. The other churches of Palestine have set a precedent of Arabization. With the Patriarchate as unpopular as it is, the time is ripe for a change. The election of a Patriarch more sympathetic to Palestinian issues, or even of an ethnically Arab one, would throw the entire city of Jerusalem into great uncertainty, given the strategic and symbolic importance of the land it owns. Church land could revert back to full Church ownership when the leases expire in 30 years and could then be sold to Palestinians. A cozy relationship with the religious leadership would be nullified as well. The Israeli government’s expropriation bill failed miserably, and the Holy Sepulchre’s closure angered many Christian communities. Israel needs a less shortsighted strategy, one that will curtail the process by which Orthodox activists are driven straight into the heart of the Palestinian resistance. Israel’s policies and its cooperation with a foreign, hostile, and greedy Patriarchate are the contemporary sources of the “discouragement and bitterness” that Storrs noticed in 1917. Surely Israel hopes to avoid another hundred years of the same conflict.