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The Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Given its association with the life of Jesus and his first community of disciples, Jerusalem has always been of great importance to Christians. As the Christian faith gained wider acceptance in the Roman Empire, the prestige of Jerusalem grew as well. Emperor Constantine, who was very favorable to Christianity, caused magnificent basilicas to be built over some of the holy places in the 4th century. Monasticism had come to Palestine very soon after the first Christian communities were founded in Egypt, and monasteries continued to flourish in the area, especially in the desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon decided to raise the Church of Jerusalem to the rank of Patriarchate. In doing so, three ecclesiastical provinces with about sixty dioceses were detached from the Patriarchate of Antioch, to which the area had previously belonged. Under Greek Byzantine rule, Jerusalem continued to thrive as the destination of countless Christian pilgrims as “the Mother church.” The invasions of the Persians in 614 and the Arabs in 637 brought this prosperity to an end. Many Christian churches and monasteries were destroyed, and much of the population gradually converted to Islam.

In 1099 the Crusaders took over Jerusalem and established a Latin kingdom that would endure for almost a century. During this period Rome created a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. A line of Greek Patriarchs continued in exile, usually residing in Constantinople. The Greek Patriarchs began living at or near Jerusalem again following the collapse of the Crusader kingdom.

Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1187, but was soon taken by the Egyptian Mamelukes. The Ottoman Turks gained control of the city in 1516. During the 400 years of Ottoman rule there were many struggles between Christian groups over possession of the holy places. In the mid-19th century, the Turks confirmed Greek control over most of them. This arrangement has remained unchanged during the British mandate, which began in 1917, and under subsequent Jordanian and Israeli administrations.

The Patriarchate is governed by a Holy Synod presided over by the Patriarch. Its members, which cannot exceed 18, are all clerics and appointed by the Patriarch. In addition, there is a mixed council that allows for lay input in the decision-making process of the Patriarchate.

The fact that the hierarchy of the Patriarchate is Greek while the faithful are Arab has been a source of contention in recent times. Since 1534 all the Patriarchs of Jerusalem have been ethnic Greeks. At present the Patriarch and bishops are drawn from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, a Jerusalem monastic community founded in the 16th century that has 90 Greek and four Arab members. The married clergy are entirely drawn from the local Arab population. This explains why the Byzantine liturgy is celebrated in Greek in the monasteries but in Arabic in the parishes.

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