Ecumenical cooperation in Jerusalem
Jubilee 2000 Search

Jerusalem Committee


Kamal-Hanna Bathish

1. A particular context

«A separate chapter will be the actual celebration of the Great Jubilee, which will take place simultaneously in the Holy Land, in Rome and in the local Churches throught the world»(TMA 55). If for the first time in history the Holy Father makes the Holy Land a pole of the Great Jubilee, this would seem to imply that Jerusalem has a message to share.

However, in order to grasp the importance of a gesture it is necessary to consider it in its historical and cultural context and in the various political and social circumstances which may qualify its reach and its limits. More particularly, the historical-cultural conditions of the Church in the Holy Land have revealed themselves to be unique and determining. But let us be content to make a rapid analysis.

a) Multilateral dialogue

Whereas in other countries ecumenical dialogue takes place between the Catholic Church and one other Church at a time, in the Holy Land dialogue in the Catholic Church, which already comprises the hierarchies and communities of six different rites, must simultaneously take into consideration each of the Churches living here which altogether are seven, not counting many other ramifications and institutions which profess to represent Christianity. It is true that the two Christian communities with the largest number of faithful are the Catholic Church and the Greek-Orthodox Church. But at the same time we cannot overlook the importance at least of the presence of the other Churches, officially recognised with their own statutes and their own history.

b) Historical and cultural ties

Neither must we underestimate the fact that some of the Churches in the Holy Land are subject to different historical and cultural ties, according to the foreign country which supports them, the origin of their leaders and therefore of the culture which they have acquired from them, which can be: Roman, French, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, Anglo-Saxon etc...

c) Customs, privileges, rights and "statu quo"

This history unfortunately has not always promoted understanding and cooperation, indeed at times it favoured discussions and generated dissent which had little to do with theology and religion. The history of these Churches created for each of them certain customs, privileges and rights which became an integral part of their presence in the Holy Land at the Holy Places, determining in this way a state of affairs ratified by the political authorities of the country. In the end all this was set down in a so-called "status quo" which determines both their existence and their co-existence in the Holy Land and in some of Christianity's most important holy places; consequently, each Church has felt obliged to protect and defend itself from the civil authorities and from the other Churches who might appear to be rivals!

d) A minority Church

A unique case in the whole world, some of the Heads of the Churches of the Holy Land exercise international jurisdiction, in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. At the same time, as all over the Middle East, the Church lives an experience of a minority in the midst of great Jewish or Muslim majorities. For both these majorities there is still no separation between religion and state. This means that the Church must always deal with a civil authority, controlled and inspired by Muslim or Jewish laws. This situation confronts Christians with the respective dominating mentalities. Some figures will explain: in Israel and in Palestine about 175,000 faithful of all the Christian communities make up not quite 2% of the population of 2 million and 800 thousand Muslims and 4 and a half million Jews. And in Jerusalem, the Holy City par excellence, out of 600 thousand inhabitants, 11 thousand are Christians and 160 thousand are Muslims.

The Christian minority is in constant danger of diminishing. Emigration slowly transfers elsewhere the living stones of a Church in danger of becoming in the Holy Land, the Land of Christ, a museum of lifeless Christian historical and archaeological curiosities!

e) Difficult political conditions

Another important factor for understanding the behaviour of the Churches in the Holy Land is the political situation of a territory which, down through the centuries has passed from one occupation to the next, never knowing a time of liberty, independence and peace. We can therefore understand why the Churches, living constantly under unstable political and social conditions, particularly in this twentieth century, tended to assume an attitude of closure and defence, so as to maintain each their own identity together with their faith and their life.

Is this consumed irony of the times or better, the Spirit of the Lord watching over the Church? Recent, difficult political conditions in the Holy Land, specially since the 1960s, have led the Churches to meet, to draw nearer to each other and unite their efforts to survive and assert themselves in the face of the radical and decisive changes in the social and political situation. In this way politics, which had been a determining factor of division in the Church, have now been transformed into an impelling cause of openness and encounter.

f) One people but an international dimension

The Christian people in the Holy Land, represented by the different Christian Churches is today for the great majority, one people, native, Arab, Palestinian, which nourishes the same aspirations and political and religious expectations. The political and social conditions of life exert however strong pressure on the people and therefore it feels deeply the scandal of division between brothers in Christ, and perhaps even brothers in blood, and ardently aspires to bring about unity among Christians, not always over-concerned with unity of dogma.

This attitude of the people is in no way affected by the existence of a small minority of Christians of Jewish origin or expression, or the international dimension of the Holy Land expressed above all in the constant flow of pilgrims which opens it to the world, providing strong ecclesial support and a source of economic promotion.

2. Positive initiatives

a) Meeting of the Churches

God must have providentially arranged that in the last thirty years, social circumstances would bring the Heads of all the Christian Churches to Jerusalem to meet cordially and study how to face circumstances and problems with a common reaction and answer. For four years now these meetings, generally held in the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate, have multiplied and become periodical, bimonthly and sometimes monthly, also addressing together certain pastoral matters concerning the communities. So we have begun to work together and to cooperate.

b) An initial agreement for the Jubilee

A meeting held on May 30th 1995 focused on cooperation for common preparation and celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. An initial agreement had already been reached: each Church will be free to undertake its own initiatives, but will inform the other Churches of the latter inviting them to participate if possible. This has been done by the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch for example, with his project for an All-Orthodox Meeting in Bethlehem for the Year 2000. And also by the Catholic Church - who has her own commissions and initiatives for the Jubilee - with a Week of Christological Study to be held from the 29th April to the 4th May, 1997.

But to encourage and promote common initiatives it seemed opportune to set up a special restricted Commission, the "Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee" (JICC). Presided by the Copt-Orthodox Archbishop it is composed of one member per Christian family, that is one Catholic, one Greek-Orthodox, one Armenian Orthodox and one Protestant, who have been joined lately by a lay Secretary, head of the "Middle East Council of Churches" (MECC) in Jerusalem.

c) Christmas message 1995

All this was confirmed by a particular event, the first of its kind in the history of these Churches: a press-conference held by all the Patriarchs and Heads of the Christian Churches in Jerusalem, on December 21st 1995 in the hall of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate, to present their Joint Christmas Message which that time dealt with the Year 2000. The message reads: «We the heads of the Christian communities in the Holy Land united in love of God and in concern for our spiritual flock of Christians, are working together to render this anniversary very special for the renewal of Christian life and love of our dear people».

After announcing the constitution of the special commission, the Leaders affirm once again in public: «Living Christian charity, we are preparing to see fulfilled in us the desire for which Jesus prayed after the Last Supper with his apostles. "Father, keep in your name those you have given me that they may be one, as we are one.. I pray not only for these but for all who through their word will believe in me, so that all may be one..., that the world will believe that you have sent me"». (Jn 17,11,20,21).

d) Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee

Since then this committee has begun to work, planning numerous initiatives and projects for the preparation and celebration of the Year 2000. But more important is the climate of understanding, trust, brotherhood, friendship and cooperation - words which truly signify what they say - inspiring the members of the committee and their meetings and which can already be considered a gift of the Spirit. I cannot resist telling you what one venerable Orthodox member of the Committee confided to me: «I think and I feel that all that we are doing is worth nothing if it is not accompanied by good spiritual preparation for the Jubilee!». Therefore I will just list the initiatives started or planned, because, situated as she is in the particular context of Church in the Holy Land, this local Church is already very eloquent and tells of the presence of the Spirit of the Lord who inspires and blesses this common activity. Once again many of the initiatives of the different Churches are already presented with the spirit of the Jubilee of the year 2000. I do not wish to give the impression that things proceed without difficulty, but I have always fully shared Pope John Paul II's optimistic and prophetic hope for Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee is still working on the preparation of:

1. a common document on the Jubilee;
2. a book on the Church in the Land of Christ;
3. a symbol (logo);
4. a common calendar starting from 1999;
5. a Year Book of the Church in the Holy Land;
6. a Poster;
7. an Academic Conference;
8. an Art Exhibition;
9. a Musical Concert;
10. a Documentary;
11. an Inter-Church Centre;
12. Dates and Events to open and close the Year 2000 etc...

e) Meetings on various levels

Parallel to these initiatives of the heads of the Churches, various institutes and groups have for some time been holding important ecumenical meetings, which with time are leaving a mark and bringing hearts nearer to union. Particularly noteworthy are annual celebrations in the Churches of the different Christian communities during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There are also meetings for lay Christians, who discuss practical matters such as the unification of the dates for the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Other academic meetings are organized between Christians and Muslims or Jews, or all three, by the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Al-Liqa', the Inter-Faith Association and others.

f) An outstanding event

The highlight of ecumenical events so far, certainly planned by God rather than men, since it surprised even the most optimistic of ecumenists in the Holy Land, took place on January 2nd 1997. It was the day of the inauguration of the newly decorated Dome of the Holy Sepulchre Basilica. At ten in the morning that day, the three Patriarchs, Greek-Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Orthodox, the heads of all the Christian Churches of the Holy Land, the Jewish authorities of Israel and the Muslim and Christian authorities of Palestine, the international community represented by General Consuls serving in Jerusalem, as well as a large number of Religious and lay people, gathered for prayer led by the three Churches who look after the Basilica and their respective choirs. This prayer, unthinkable even the day before (out of respect for the principle of the Orthodox Church which considers prayer together a sign of union) took place in front of the Edicola of the empty tomb of the Risen Christ, which years earlier had been the scene of bitter discussion and conflict.

The great event was put into the prospect of the third millennium in speeches by the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch and by the Father Custodian of the Holy Land. The Greek Patriarch Diodoros I said: «Today's ceremony, unique in its kind, is the splendid fruit of indispensable cooperation between the three above-mentioned Christian communities for the restoration and decoration of this great Dome. Furthermore it is an expression of our fraternal co-existence in this Place which teaches pardon, reconciliation, love and unity, since the One in whom we believe and whom we proclaim as Lord here "extended his arms to unite that which had been divided" calling us all to be one in him (Jn 17,21)

We prayer therefore that this event may be the beginning of our spiritual coming together. May we, profoundly aware of our mission of responsibility, be led into the third Millennium in the light of the truth who is Christ and filled with common faith in the Gospel and the rule of an exemplary service of love for everyone... Let us pray to the Lord to bring us together again to celebrate similar events».

The Armenian Patriarch, for his part, after communal supper asked to fill an omission of the morning ceremony, that they should pray together, each in their own language, the Lord's prayer, the "Our Father", in thanksgiving. Is this not already a message coming from Jerusalem?