The Christian Communities of Jerusalem and the Holy Land: Studies in History, Religion and Politics

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The Christian Communities of Jerusalem and the Holy Land: Studies in History, Religion and Politics. Edited by Anthony O'Mahony. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. Pp. viii, 210.)

This well-conceived collection of eight essays on various aspects of Christian history and communal life in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine is a valuable contribution to a wider understanding of a very complex and problematic political context. For most of its history since the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the Holy Land was ruled by a succession of Muslim governments. During this period the Christian majority population was gradually reduced to a small minority of 15% by the time of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948. The mass expulsion of both Muslim and Christian Palestinians at that time and the subsequent influx of several million Jews from the Middle East and Europe have reduced the number of Christians to a mere 2% of the total population, or roughly 200,000, mostly Arab Palestinians divided primarily among the two most ancient churches, Greek Orthodox and Catholic (both Roman and Eastern-rite), with much smaller numbers of Armenians, Copts, and Protestants. Another 200,000 Christians live in neighboring Jordan, two-thirds of them Greek Orthodox and equally divided among those of West Bank Palestinian origin and native East Bank Jordanian Arab stock. Those in Jerusalem and the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, have been under considerable pressure by the Zionists to leave and many have, in desperation, emigrated. Still they remain a very important and visible presence in the societies of Israel and Palestine.

In Jerusalem, where Christians number only about 10,000 out of a population of nearly half a million, they maintain a substantial number of historical churches and monasteries, and own large tracts of very valuable real estate. Three patriarchs are based in Jerusalem-Greek Orthodox, Roman (Latin) Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox). The oldest and richest patriarchate is the Greek Orthodox, since the Ottoman conquest in 1517 headed by an ethnic Greek, even though the Orthodox population in the Holy Land is Palestinian Arab, a long-standing bone of contention. The Latin Catholic patriarch is an ethnic Palestinian from Nazareth, the first since the patriarchate was re-established in 1847. His predecessors were Italian Franciscans. …