As the scene of the momentous events of holy history (historia sacra), as described in the Christian holy writings, the Land of Israel is distinguished by its very rich Christian tradition. Numerous places were sanctified through historical religious memory and later by commemorative structures, memory and ritual, in their use as pilgrimage sites.
Beyond the events, characters and holy sites – it was the local Christian community that maintained the continuity and the memory of 2000 years of Christianity. The numerous Christian denominations, one of the trademarks of Middle Eastern Christianity, make the Jerusalem Church an anthropological-theological-liturgical museum. This variety transforms the Holy Land into a very impressive composition of the different types of religious experience. For example, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, six denominations praise the Lord under a single roof and do so concurrently in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and the language of ancient Ethiopia.
The Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church in the Middle East is known as the “Latin Church”, after the language of prayer in the past. During the Crusades, the Catholics built new churches, some of which remain fully intact today. These include the Church of St. Anne (according to tradition the birthplace of the Virgin Mary) and the most important – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. In the 14th century, the Franciscan Order came to the Holy Land. The Franciscan Friars renovated and built the holy sites, and were entrusted the custody of the Holy Land by the Pope. The Franciscans rescued holy sites from oblivion, and after excavation and revelation of remnants of the past, they built churches such as the monumental church in Nazareth at the site of the Annunciation and the church built on the house of Peter Prince of the Apostles in Capernaum. In the 19th century, the first Latin Patriarch since the Crusades settled in Jerusalem and with the help of dozens of communities of monks and Catholic institutions, filled the Holy Land with additional churches, monasteries, institutions and guesthouses. Along with the population of religious figures from around the world (e.g. French, Italian and more), the Arab-Catholic population grew stronger in the Holy Land and created the surprising and fascinating Latin liturgy in Arabic (such as Arabic renditions of the Latin hymns of Thomas Aquinas in the Corpus Christi procession). In addition to the Catholic Arab population in the villages and cities in Israel, the Catholic Church is represented in Israel by three organizations: the Franciscan Order, the Latin Patriarchate and the Papal Nunciature. The first two organizations conduct the processions and ceremonies as well as the Catholic holidays following the Christian Gregorian calendar, with the participation of the locals and pilgrims from around the world. Some of the most famous are the Palm Sunday procession, in which tens of thousands of believers waving palm fronds march from Mount of Olives into the Old City crying, “Hosanna”.
The Eastern Catholic churches
In the Holy Land, the number of members of Eastern Catholic churches is larger than the number of members of the Latin Catholic church. Although all subject to the Papacy, these Catholic communities have different ritual and cultural heritages: Greek – Catholics, Maronite – Catholics, Armenian – Catholics, Syrian – Catholics, etc. The Catholic ceremonies during Holy Week according to the Eastern Orthodox traditions – offer an exciting opportunity to experience the holiday differently.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches
The Greek Orthodox Church has had a continual presence in the Holy Land for 1,700 years, since the fourth century C.E, as the direct descendant of St. James (the brother of Jesus) – the first Bishop of Jerusalem. At its head is the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem along with dozens of monks, members of the “Fraternity of the Holy Sepulcher”. The Patriarchate, located next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is in charge of dozens of Arab Orthodox communities, dozens of monasteries and holy sites and large numbers of pilgrims who come from around the Orthodox world. The dominance of the Orthodox Church is recognized through its many rights at the holy sites, which grant it priority status even in the joint ceremonies of all the denominations.
The Orthodox Church holds the prayers, ceremonies and holidays according to Byzantine tradition and according to the Christian Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West. The Orthodox calendar has many holidays, including unique and colorful ones, celebrated in the presence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the masses of pilgrims such as the night procession to the “Tomb of Mary” in August, the descent to toss the cross into the Jordan River on the Feast of Theophany in January, and the most famous, the ceremony of the Holy Fire on the Holy Saturday.
Other national-Orthodox churches are also present in the Holy Land, and they receive their authority from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, namely the Russian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church is particularly prominent, owning churches and monasteries around Jerusalem and Israel. It has monks and nuns and massive pilgrimages. The holidays, processions and exalted religious hymns of the Russian Church enrich the liturgical mosaic of the Holy Land.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches (Non-Chalcedonian Churches)
The Oriental Churches are churches that accepted the decisions of the Church through the beginning of the fourth century, but rejected the decisions of the Council in Chalcedon in 451. These Churches preserved independent existence and institutions, while maintaining the other traditions and languages unique to it. They have been present in Jerusalem and in other places in the Holy Land: their rights to ritual and presence at the holy sites are internationally recognized and are a colorful and exciting addition to the Holy Land.
The Armenian people were the first to accept Christianity as a national religion, and there is evidence of a permanent Armenian presence in Jerusalem from the fourth century to date. Aside from the Mother Church in Armenia, the Armenian Church in Jerusalem has an independent Patriarchate, in charge of the Armenians’ assets and its extensive rights at the holy sites. The ornate cathedral, the Armenian monastery and surroundings form their own quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The unique ceremonies of this Church are celebrated gloriously in the Armenian Cathedral and at the holy sites according to the age-old rights, using the ancient Armenian language and script. Among the things unique to the Armenian community are the Armenian Christmas festivities that take place in Bethlehem on an exceptional date: January 18-19, but only in the Holy Land.
The Copts – Orthodox, Orthodox Syriacs and Ethiopian Orthodox
These three Oriental Churches represent ancient Christian traditions: The Copts are the Nile Valley’s Christians representatives; the Syriacs represent the Syriac-speaking Christians of the east, and the Ethiopians represent the first Christian country in Africa: Ethiopia. At the head of these Churches are Archbishops seated in Jerusalem, who report to Patriarchs located outside the Holy Land, respectively: in Alexandria, Antiochia (Damascus today) and Addis Ababa. Although the number of locals is no more than several thousand, the colorful presence of the denominations is felt in the streets and churches, especially on major holidays. The chant, “He has resurrected” is heard in Jerusalem
in ancient languages: Coptic (the language of Egypt prior to Arabic), Syriac (Aramaic dialect) and the language of ancient Ethiopia – Ge’ez.
The Protestant Churches
The Protestant Churches arrived in the Holy Land in the 19th century. The first major initiative was that of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, who worked together for several years under a single Bishopric in Jerusalem. Later, they each established churches and educational institutions, health care and more. Aside from construction in cities around Israel, the Cathedral of St. George and St George’s Cathedral Close were built and serve the Anglican Archbishop of the Holy Land and the monumental Lutheran Churches on Mount of Olives (Augusta Victoria) and near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Small local congregations formed at both churches (along with the English-, German-, Swedish-, Danish- and Finnish-speaking congregations), headed by an Arab Bishop. One of the most famous Holy Land sites for Protestants is the Garden Tomb, identified by the Anglicans as the site of the burial of Jesus. The Garden Tomb has become a very important place for prayer and meditation by Protestant pilgrims.
Other Protestant Churches such as The Church of Scotland, the Baptist Church, and others built buildings and houses of worship, and Protestant organizations are involved in organizing exciting religious gatherings such as Evangelical Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem each year.