Minority Communities in Israel: The Christian Communities of Israel
Latin & Uniate Churches
Freedom of Religion
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 Churches
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 Empire.
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, the 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 Kyiv. 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 and nuns.
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
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 nature.
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 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 Quo.
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 Uniate Churches
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 that 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 word
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 Crusader period.
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 December 30, 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 later.
The Protestant Churches
The Protestant communities in the Middle East only date from the early 19th century and the Western missionary
rediscovery 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 the United Kingdom 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 had 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 - about 200.
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 of Germany.
In 1982, the Norwegian Mission to Israel transferred the 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, Kefar 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 a number of other 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.
Historically, on the eve of World War I, the Christian population was about 70,000 – 10% of the population. During the 20th century, absolute numbers increased, but the relative number of Christians declined. By 1947, on the eve of Israeli independence, the Christian population in Mandatory Palestine was 143,000 – 7% of the total population. By the end of the war, 34,000 Christians remained within the borders of the State of Israel, less than 3% of the population.
Of the nearly 9.7 million people living in Israel as of January 2023, approximately 185,000 (2%) of the population are Christians. 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. In 2021, it grew by 2%, and 84% of Israeli Christians say they are satisfied with life in the country.
Most Christians (77%) are Arabs, but Christians comprise only 7% of the Israeli Arab community. The majority of non-Arab Christians living in Israel are citizens who immigrated to Israel since 1990, together with Jewish family members under the Law of Return.
The largest Arab Christian cities are Nazareth (21,400), Haifa, (16,500), Jerusalem (12,900), and the Galilee city of Shfaram (10,300).
At the end of 2019, the average age of marriage for Christian men was 30.1 years old, approximately one-and-a-half years older than Druze men, two-and-a-half years older than Jewish men and three-and-a-half years older than Muslim men. Among Christian women, the average age of marriage was 26 years old – similar to the average age among Jewish women, one year older than Druze women and three-and-a-half years older than Muslims
The average fertility rate among Christians in 2018 was 2.06 children per woman, compared to 3.2 for Muslim women, 3.17 for Jewish women, and 2.16 for Druze women.
During the 2018-19 academic year, there were 6,200 Christian students – representing 2.3% of all students in Israeli higher education. A total of 94.3% of Christian students were of Arab descent.
In 2021, the average monthly salary was about $11,773.
Freedom of Religion
The basic attitude of the state toward religious pluralism found expression in the 1948 Declaration of Independence:
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 internal affairs.
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 to 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 and divorce.
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.
The obligation to serve in the Israeli army applies only to Jews, Druze, and Circassians. Christians are not required to serve in the IDF. Nevertheless, some Christians do volunteer. In 2019, one soldier was appointed a lieutenant colonel, making him the first soldier of his faith to achieve that rank.
Sources: Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, “Onward Christian Soldier: Life as a Non-Jew in the IDF,” Breaking Israel News, (January 8, 2019).
Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Eytan Halon, “Israel’s Christian population grows to 177,000 citizens,” Jerusalem Post, (December 23, 2019).
“Israel’s Christian community is growing, 84% satisfied with life here – report,” Times of Israel, (December 22, 2021).
Ash Obel, “Annual Christmas report says Israel’s Christian population has grown to 185,000,” Times of Israel, (December 26, 2022).
Photo of Holy Sepulcher courtesy of Israeli Government Press Office and Ministry of Tourism, all rights reserved to Albatross/Itamar Greenberg and to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.