George Jaraisi owns a souvenir shop catering to Orthodox pilgrims just feet away from St. George’s Orthodox Church in Kafr Kanna, Israel. Among his merchandise is local wine—Kanna wine—named in commemoration of the miracle associated with this town, Jesus’ turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana.
Jaraisi is one of more than 130,000 Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, by far the largest Christian denomination in the region. While most Orthodox Christians are ethnically Palestinian, the levers of power within the Jerusalem Patriarchate are controlled almost exclusively by Greek priests and bishops. Over 50 percent of Palestinian Christians are Orthodox, and they represent a constituency often misunderstood by the predominantly Greek leadership of the Holy Synod, the governing council of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the bishops under their auspices.
“They want everything to be Greek,” Jaraisi said. “Instead of bringing people together, they’re splitting them apart.” Despite his proximity to St. George’s Church, Jaraisi said that he never steps foot inside.
The differences between the leadership and the constituency extend beyond the merely cultural. They are also about land, like so much else in Israel and Palestine. The Orthodox Church is the second-largest landholder in all of Israel, behind only the state itself, and revelations about the church’s massive property sales have spurred discontent among Christian Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank.
“There’s a popular opinion that most of the church’s money comes from local Palestinian laity and the church’s selling of its assets is a betrayal of that trust,” said Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.
In 2012, the Orthodox Church sold 240 apartments in the Givat Oranim neighborhood of Jerusalem for $3.3 million to a shell company in the Virgin Islands. In 2015, it sold large sections of the Caesarea National Park for $1 million. According to real-estate appraisers, the amount paid for the transactions was far below market rate. Most of these deals weren’t made public until late 2017 when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained several of the contracts.
This tension has erupted into the public sphere every January for the past three years during the Orthodox celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem. Patriarch Theophilos III, head of the Orthodox Jerusalem Patriarchate, has been routinely heckled by Palestinian protesters angry about the recent sale of church properties to Israeli companies and settler groups in both Israel and East Jerusalem. In 2018, Theophilos’s motorcade was smacked with raw eggs by bystanders waving Palestinian flags, but this year it was the protesters themselves targeted, their cellphones stolen by young men feared to be undercover police officers with the Palestinian Authority.
“Our demands are clear and simple,” said Aglab Khoury of the Orthodox Central Council, an activist group within the church. “We want the patriarch to resign.”
The popular anger with recent land deals indicates a broader discontent among Orthodox Palestinian Christians over identity and the role of the church in securing Palestinian political and human rights over the course of fifty years of Israeli occupation.
“Land is very important for the Palestinian Arab community. Selling land is almost like selling a piece of their body,” said Bendcowsky.
While the Orthodox Church enters into a skirmish with the state of Israel about the status of church properties and revenues, the conflict has brought a deeper problem to the surface, one that has plagued the institution not just for decades, but for centuries: Is the Orthodox Church in Palestine Palestinian?
Fr. Chrestostomos, the head and only abbot of St. George’s Church, is the custodian of a besieged institution. Born in the city of Thessaloniki, the second largest in Greece and one of the Byzantine Empire’s most important urban centers, Chrestostomos was groomed since early childhood for his position of leadership in the church.
“As a small child, around the age of seven, I left Greece to live at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. I grew up, and became a part of the patriarchate. Now, I’m like a visitor in Greece.”
This is how most enter the hierarchy of archimandrites and bishops in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the fifteen self-governing or autocephalous branches of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jerusalem Patriarchate represents Orthodox Christians in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan, but is almost entirely led by priests born in Greece.
Meanwhile, as Christian Palestinians continue to emigrate, they now make up only about 1 percent of the total Palestinian population, and there is heightened tension between a shrinking indigenous Palestinian laity and the Greek priests of the leadership. “There are very few Arab priests and monks within the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The laity have never really trusted the patriarchate,” said Bendcowsky. “Does the church belong to the clergy or to the community?”
Chrestostomos, who wears a flowing black gown and whose long brown beard reaches his chest, argues in the name of tradition. “The abbot of this church must be a monk, and it is not easy to be an abbot. The fathers who led this church have always come from Byzantium and spoke Greek. The Greeks continue the original kind of Christianity.”
He tends to the spiritual needs of 1,800 Arab Orthodox Christians in Israel’s northern Galilee region and is the protector of one of Christianity’s holiest sites. The Orthodox Church claims St. George’s Church as the site where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana.
In 327 CE, a monastery was built around the church to house the dozens of monks who preserved the patrimony of the holy site through centuries of fires, earthquakes, and conflict. St. George’s achieved its splendor in the late nineteenth century when Nikolai II, the last Russian emperor, bequeathed a large donation resulting in the installation of marble floors and floor-to-ceiling murals. Now the former bustle of monastic life has been reduced to one abbott who preserves the mission of St. George’s: Fr. Chrestostomos.
“There are ten empty churches scattered around Kafr Kanna with no priests. We have to decide, what are the most holy places?” he said. “I don’t have friends here, I live alone, but I’m here for the families of this town. Someone must continue the tradition here.”
The Orthodox Church in Kfar Kanna and the Holy Land understands itself as a keeper of Christian tradition through two millennia, and this sense of historical longevity guides everything it does. Sometimes, though, that means the past constellation of empires, governments, and imported cultural influence makes the church a stranger to those who it is intended to serve.
“We are not a minority in our homeland, and we reject and refuse to be looked at as a minority,” said Archbishop Atallah Hanna, one of four bishops in the Jerusalem Patriarchate who is Palestinian. “We are a main component [of] the Palestinian people and we are part of the struggle against occupation.”
Archbishop Atallah Hanna is notable for his vocal political stances against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He was arrested in 2002 during the height of the second intifada, and he accused the Israeli government of unfairly targeting him for criticizing the Israeli Defense Forces. He was born in the Arab town of Rameh in Israel’s north and grew attached to a local Orthodox priest there. He left for Thessaloniki to study Greek and the Bible, but insisted on being called his birth name, Nizar.
“My family was so much in love with the great Arab poets, and they decided to name me after Nizar Qabbani. I always went by Nizar even when I went to Greece, and I was always proud of that name. I was called Nizar until I became a priest.”
In 1992 Nizar was ordained a priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and was put in charge of the church’s Arabic language translation. It was then that he assumed the name Atallah Hanna, “gift of God.” “I climbed the ladder from the first plank of laity to the second of being a priest, third archimandrite, and fourth as an archbishop—but I never changed. I will always be Nizar.”
“Christian churches in Palestine have always stood for the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said. “The church here is the mother of all churches and here is where Christianity was born…. We’ve been here for more than 2,000 years and our roots are planted deep in this soil.”
Even during the Byzantine era when Greek influence was at its zenith, the patriarchs of Jerusalem were Arab, except for a brief interlude during the height of the Crusades in the twelfth century. This changed in 1534 with the installation of Greek Patriarch Germanus, who completely transformed the institution, removing Arab clergy and Hellenizing the Holy Synod. In 1669, his successor, Patriarch Dositheos, decreed only Greek clergy could gain entrance to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarchate’s then-highest body. This is the tradition that Fr. Chrestostomos stems from, and the one against which Archbishop Atallah Hanna pushes back.
The selling of church lands in this context comes to assume a deeper political significance, a sign perhaps that the Orthodox Church isn’t concerned with nationalist Palestinian claims to sovereignty. In the wake of the most recent revelations of land sales, the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour refused to attend the Orthodox Christmas celebration in January 2018, the first time in decades that municipal leaders have publicly rallied against the head of the Patriarchate.
The main Palestinian Orthodox protest group is called Gheyr Mostaheq, which means “illegitimate” in Arabic. Formed in 2005 during the push to have former Patriarch Irenaios I resign, Gheyr Mostaheq is composed of a number of groups, including the Central Council of Orthodox Christians and the Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council. Irenaios was widely condemned during his tenure for a series of land sales in the Old City of Jerusalem to the right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim and is accused by Gheyr Mostaheq activists of embezzling more than $1 million. They remain critical of the current patriarch for what they see as a continuation of improper land sales without consultation.
The patriarchate says that it doesn’t have a choice but to sell its properties. “The church is doing the work of the municipality in Jerusalem. We have schools, hospitals, and the most important tourist sites, all with no state involvement. It’s a great burden to maintain these sites,” said Assad Mazawi, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
While many Palestinian Christians object to the selling of any church lands to Israelis regardless of their being in Israel or the West Bank, Mazawi says these sales are conducted pragmatically in the church’s interest, and that there is no affiliation with the kind of Palestinian nationalism that Atallah Hanna articulates.
“We sometimes have different agendas than those groups,” said Mazawi. “The church has no Palestinian agenda.” Patriarch Theophilos reaffirmed this neutral viewpoint in a January 2018 op-ed in the Guardian when he said, “Jerusalem is a sacred gift, hallowed ground, for the entire world. Attempts to possess the holy city, or to define it in terms of exclusivity, will betray its true nature.”
In a striking omission, Theophilos failed to mention the dispossession of Palestinians from Jerusalem, a surprising fact given that most, including Orthodox Palestinians, cannot worship or reach the city without obtaining Israeli permits, a process that is increasingly difficult and arbitrary.
Chrestostomos blames the lack of Palestinian representation in the church on the fact that many young people today do not want to become priests. “The Arabs want their children to be doctors,” he said. “Today people believe in money. To reach the upper echelons of the church, one must enter the church at an early age.”
Yet Bishop Atallah Hanna says the church needs to try harder to incorporate the diversity of the communities they represent and act as a political and social force for change. In 2009, over 3,000 Palestinian Christian leaders, including the Archbishop, signed the Kairos Palestine document outlining the church’s responsibility in opposing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“Christian Palestinians are not alien in their own church,” he told me. “For us who come from this land, we reject being treated as fourth- or fifth-class citizens. We are proud Christians, and it is a duty for each one of us to love our homeland and protect this nation.”