The Christian Communities of Israel
Of the 8.08 million people living in Israel as of September 2013, Christians constituted approximately 320,000 people, around 3.5 to 4% of the population. While Christians have fled from Palestinian controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of violence and persecution, the Christian population in Israel has increased over the past few decades.
- Orthodox Churches
- Non-Chalcedonian Churches
- Latin & Uniate Churches
- Protestant Churches
- Freedom of Religion
- Holy Places
- Communal Autonomy
- "Recognized" Communities
The history of the Christian communities in the Land
of Israel begins with the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. After his death
the early Apostolic Church, at least that in and around Jerusalem,
remained Judeo-Christian until the rebuilding of Jerusalem (c. 130 CE)
by Hadrian as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Since this date the
local Church has been entirely gentile in composition. It was also one
and undivided, until the early Ecumenical Councils. By the time of the Muslim conquest the Church
in the East was already subdivided into various sects, although they
seem to have continued to share in the use of the Holy Places. It was
only with the Crusader Kingdoms, and the paramountcy (praedominium) enjoyed by the (Latin)
Church of the West, that contention arose regarding the Holy Places
and continued unabated through the Mamluk and Ottoman periods until
the declaration of the Status Quo in 1852.
The communities may be divided into four basic categories
- Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian (Monophysite), Catholic (Latin
and Uniate) and Protestant - consisting of some 20 ancient and indigenous
churches, and another 30, primarily Protestant, denominational groups.
Except for national churches, such as the Armenian, the indigenous communities
are predominantly Arabic-speaking; most of them, very likely, descendants
of the early Christian communities of the Byzantine period.
The Orthodox Church (also termed Eastern or Greek-Orthodox
Church) consists of a family of Churches all of which acknowledge the
honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Historically, this
Church developed from the Churches of the East Roman or Byzantine
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate considers itself to
be the Mother Church of Jerusalem, to whose bishop patriarchal dignity
was granted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Since 1054 it has been
in schism with Rome. However, in 1964 a historic meeting between Pope
Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras,
was held in Jerusalem.
After 1099 and the Crusader conquest, the (Orthodox)
patriarchate of Jerusalem, already in exile, was removed to Constantinople.
Permanent residence in Jerusalem was not reestablished until 1845.
Since 1662, direction of Orthodox interests in the
Holy Land has rested with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, which
has sought to safeguard the status of the Orthodox Church in the Holy
Places, and to preserve the Hellenistic character of the Patriarchate.
The parishes are predominantly Arabic-speaking,
and are served by Arab married priests as well as by members of the
Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher. The community numbers about 120,000
in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Two other historic Orthodox national churches also
have representation in the country: the Russian and the Rumanian. Being
in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church, they are under the local
jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
The Russian Orthodox mission was established in Jerusalem
in 1858, but Russian Christians had begun visiting the Holy Land in
the 11th century, only a few years after the Conversion of Kiev. Such
visits continued over the next 900 years, eventually growing into the
great annual pilgrimages of the late 19th century, which continued until
World War I, and ended with the Russian Revolution.
Since 1949, title to Russian church properties in
what was by then the territory of Israel has been held by the Russian
Orthodox Mission (Patriarchate of Moscow); title to properties in areas
then under Jordanian control remains with the Russian Ecclesiastical
Mission representing the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile. The two missions
are each led by an archimandrite, who is assisted by a number of monks
A mission representing the Rumanian Orthodox Church
was established in 1935. It is led by an archimandrite and consists
of a small community of monks and nuns resident in Jerusalem.
The Non-Chalcedonian churches are churches of
the East - Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian - that rejected
the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon (451) on the double (divine
and human) nature of Christ. The non-Chalcedonian churches hold
the Monophysite doctrine that in Christ there was but a single, divine
The Armenian Orthodox Church dates from the year 301
and the conversion of Armenia, the first nation to embrace Christianity.
An Armenian religious community has been present in Jerusalem since
the 5th century. Armenian sources date the first Patriarchate to a charter
given by the Caliph Omar to Patriarch Abraham in the year 638. The Armenian
Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in 1311.
Throughout the 19th century and during and immediately
after World War I, the local Armenian community grew with the absorption
of survivors of the Anatolian massacres, particularly those of 1915.
Before 1939 the community numbered more than 15,000, and was the third
largest Christian group. Today, the community numbers about 4,000 -
in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and Bethlehem.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has its roots in Egypt,
where most of the population became Christian during the first centuries.
They claim to have arrived in Jerusalem with St. Helena, mother of the
Emperor Constantine. This church had an early influence on the development
of desert monasticism in the wilderness of Judea. The community flourished
during the Mamluk period (1250-1517), and again with Mohammed Ali
in 1830. Since the 13th century the (Coptic) Patriarch of Alexandria
has been represented in Jerusalem by a resident archbishop. The community
numbers just over 1,000 members-in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a community
in Jerusalem since at least the Middle Ages. Early Church historians
mention Ethiopian pilgrims in the Holy Land as early as the 4th century.
What is certain is that during the centuries that followed the Ethiopian
Church enjoyed important rights in the Holy Places, but lost most of
them during the Turkish period, prior to the declaration of the Status
Today the Ethiopian Church in Israel is a small community
led by an archbishop and consisting mostly of a few dozen monks and
nuns (although the lay community is growing), living in the Old City
and around the Ethiopian Church in West Jerusalem. Since the reestablishment
of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ethiopia pilgrimage has increased
- with almost 1,000 Ethiopian pilgrims participating in Holy Week
observances in 1995.
The Syrian Orthodox Church is a successor to the ancient
Church of Antioch, and one of the oldest Christian communities in the
Middle East. Among its traditions is the continued use of the Syriac
language (Western Aramaic) in the liturgy and prayers. They are also
known as Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus, who organized the Church
in the 6th century). Their patriarch is resident in Damascus. There
have been Syrian Orthodox bishops in Jerusalem since 793; permanently,
since 1471. Today the local Church is headed by a bishop, who resides
in Jerusalem at the 7th century monastery of St. Mark. The community
numbers about 2,000, most of whom live in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The Apostolic Church of the East (sometimes erroneously
called Nestorians), originating from the border area between Turkey,
Iran and Iraq, follows the liturgy and prayers in the Syriac language
(East Aramaic). Since 1917, its patriarch resides in Chicago and Kerala
(India). The church's presence in Jerusalem was established in the 5th
century. Today it is represented by an archbishop.
The Latin and
Whatever the relations between Rome and Constantinople,
there was no attempt to establish a Western Church in the Holy Land
independent of the Orthodox Patriarchate until the Crusader period,
during which a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was in existence from
1099 till 1291. The office was again constituted in 1847. Until then,
responsibility for the local church rested with the Franciscan Order,
which served as Custodian of Latin holy places since the 14th century.
Today the Latin Church of Jerusalem is headed by a
patriarch, assisted by three vicars (resident in Nazareth, Amman and
Cyprus). The community in Israel numbers about 20,000 (with another
10,000 in the West Bank and Gaza).
The Maronite Church is a Christian community of Syrian
origin, most of whose members live in Lebanon. The Maronite Church has
been in formal communion with the Roman Catholic Church since 1182,
and is the only Eastern church which is entirely Catholic. As a Uniate
body (an Eastern Church in communion with Rome, which yet retains its
respective language, rites and canon law) they possess their own liturgy,
which is in essence an Antiochene rite in the Syriac language.
The Maronite community in Israel numbers about 6,700,
most of whom live in the Galilee. The Maronite Patriarchal Vicariate
in Jerusalem dates from 1895.
The Greek Melkite Catholic Church came into being
in 1724, the result of a schism in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.
(The term 'Melkite' dates from the 4th century and refers to those local
Christians who accepted the Definition of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon
and remained in communion with the "Imperial" see of Constantinople.)
A Greek Catholic archdiocese was established in the
Galilee in 1752. Twenty years later, Greek Catholics of Jerusalem were
placed under the jurisdiction of the Melkite patriarch of Antioch, who
is represented in Jerusalem by a patriarchal vicar. The present population
of the Greek Catholic diocese of Galilee is about 50,000; the diocese
of Jerusalem, about 3,000.
The Syrian Catholic Church, a uniate breakaway from
the monophysite Syrian Orthodox church, has been in communion with Rome
since 1663. The Syrian Catholics have their own patriarch (resident
in Beirut), and since 1890, a patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem has served
as spiritual leader of the small local community there and in Bethlehem,
which totals about 350. In July 1985, the community consecrated the
new patriarchal church in Jerusalem dedicated to St. Thomas, apostle
to the peoples of Syria and India.
The Armenian Catholic Church separated from the Armenian
Orthodox Church in 1741, though previously an Armenian community in
Cilicia (in southern Anatolia) had been in contact with Rome since the
The Armenian Catholic patriarch is resident in Beirut
because at the time, Ottoman authorities forbade residency in Constantinople.
A patriarchal vicariate was established in Jerusalem in 1842. The Armenian
Catholic community in the Holy Land numbers about 900 members, living
in Jerusalem, Bethany, Ramallah, Haifa and Gaza. Though in union with
Rome, the church has good relations with the Armenian Orthodox Church,
and both cooperate for the benefit of the community as a whole.
The Coptic Catholic Church has been in union with
Rome since 1741, but only in 1955 did the uniate Coptic Catholic Patriarch
of Alexandria appoint a patriarchal vicar to Jerusalem, where the community
today numbers about 35.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is a uniate descendant
of the ancient Nestorian (Assyrian) church. Its members still preserve
the use of Syriac as their liturgical language. It was established in
1551, and its patriarch is resident in Baghdad. The community in the
Holy Land numbers no more than a few families; even so, the Chaldean
Catholic Church retains the status of a 'recognized' religious community.
Since 1903, the Chaldeans have been represented in Jerusalem by a non-resident
patriarchal vicar. Of major significance for the Catholic Churches in
the Holy Land, was the signing, on the 30th of December 1993, of a Fundamental
Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel which lead to
the establishment of full diplomatic relations between them a few months
The Protestant communities in the Middle East only
date from the early 19th century and the Western missionary 're-discovery'
of the Holy Land. The intention of these missions was to evangelize
the majority Muslim and Jewish communities, but their only success was
in attracting Arabic-speaking Orthodox faithful.
The Jerusalem Bishopric of the Episcopal Church in
Jerusalem and the Middle East (Anglican) was founded in 1841 and became
an Archbishopric in 1957. In January 1976 significant changes were made
to mark the end of the Archbishopric and the creation of a new Diocese
and Province in Jerusalem and the Middle East, with the election and
consecration of the first Arab bishop. There are some 4,500 Anglicans
in the Diocese (2,500-3,000 in Israel), making it the largest Protestant
community in the Holy Land. The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem has his
seat in the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr in Jerusalem.
The roots of the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land
date back to 1841, when the Queen of England and the Prussian king decided
to establish a joint Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem. In 1886, the
English and the German parts separated. The German congregation attracted
increasingly Arabic-speaking people. Since 1979, the Arabic-speaking
congregations have their own bishop and both churches exist independently
of each other on the premises of the Propstei on Muristan Road in the
Old City. The Arabic community numbers about 500, and the German -
German Lutheran property, which had been confiscated
by the British in 1939, was purchased by the government of Israel in
1951 as part of the reparations agreement with the Federal Republic
In 1982, the Norwegian Mission to Israel transferred
authority and administration of its two mission churches in Haifa and
Jaffa to the responsibility of the local congregations.
The Baptist Church in the Holy Land began with the
formation of a congregation in Nazareth in 1911. Today the Association
of Baptist Churches has a total of ten churches and centers in the following
places: Acre, Cana, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Kfar-Yassif, Nazareth,
Petah-Tikvah, Rama and Tur'an. The community numbers about 900,
the majority of whom are Arabic-speaking.
The Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) sent out its
first mission to the Galilee in 1840, and for the next 100 years was
actively engaged in the fields of education and medicine. Today a small,
mostly expatriate community, serving pilgrims and visitors, the Church
of Scotland maintains a church and hospice in both Jerusalem and Tiberias.
The independent Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society maintains a teaching
hospital for nurses in Nazareth.
The Church of God (Pentecostal) has a small community
in Jerusalem, Nazareth and the West bank (about 200 in all), with an
International Center on the Mount of Olives.
Three Protestant communal agricultural settlements
have been established in different parts of Israel in recent years.
Kfar Habaptistim, north of Petah Tikvah, was founded in 1955, and besides
farming provides conference and summer-camp facilities for the Baptist
and other Protestant communities in the country. Nes Amim, near Nahariya,
was founded by a group of Dutch and German Protestants in 1963, as an
international center for the promotion of Christian understanding of
Israel. Just west of Jerusalem, Yad Hashmonah, founded in 1971, operates
a guest-house for Christian visitors and pilgrims from Finland.
In addition to those already mentioned, there are
any number of other, numerically small, Protestant denominational groups
present in Israel.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Mormon) established a small community in Haifa in 1886, and in Jerusalem
in 1972. The membership of the church today numbers almost 200, with
an additional 170 students of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern
Studies - a branch of Brigham Young University of Provo, Utah (USA).
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem was
founded in 1980, to demonstrate worldwide Christian support for Israel
and for Jerusalem as its eternal capital. It is a center where Christians
from all over the world can gain a biblical understanding of the country
and of Israel as a modern nation. The ICEJ international network includes
offices and representatives in 50 countries worldwide.
Freedom of Religion
The basic attitude of the state toward religious pluralism
found expression in the 1948 Declaration of Independence:
The State of Israel . . . will be based on freedom,
justice and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; it will ensure
complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants
irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education and culture . . . .
The document "expresses the nation's vision and
its credo," and adherence to these principles has been assured
by law. Each religious community is free to exercise its faith, to observe
its own holy days and weekly day of rest, and to administer its own
Israel has many sites which are considered holy by
the three Monotheistic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Freedom
of access and worship is ensured at all of them.
"The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration
and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom
of access of members of the various religions to the places sacred to
them, or their feelings with regard to those places." (Protection
of Holy Places Law, 1967).
Among the holy sites which are of significance to
Christianity are the Via Dolorosa, the Room of the Last Supper and the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the Church of the Annunciation
in Nazareth; and the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha and Capernaum near
Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
By their own volition, the Christian communities have
remained the most autonomous of the various religious communities in
the country. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing
tendency on the part of the Christian communities to integrate their
social welfare, medical and educational institutions into state structures,
without in any way compromising their traditional independence.
Though responsible for meeting the ritual needs of
all communities, the Ministry of Religious Affairs deliberately refrains
from interfering in the religious life of the Christian communities.
The Ministry's Department for Christian Communities serves as a liaison
office with the governmental system to which the Christian communities
can turn with problems and requests that may arise out of their situation
as minorities in the Land. The Ministry also serves as a neutral arbitrator
in ensuring the preservation of the established status quo in those
holy places where more than one Christian community has rights and privileges.
Certain Christian denominations have the status of
being a 'recognized' religious community. For historical reasons dating
from Ottoman times, the ecclesiastical courts of such communities are
granted jurisdiction in matters of personal status, such as marriage
Currently, the "recognized" Christian communities
are the Greek Orthodox, the (Melkite) Greek Catholic, the Latin, the
Armenian Orthodox, the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean Catholic, the Maronite,
the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Catholic, and - since 1970 -
the (Anglican) Evangelical Episcopal.