Until 2023, before I left the Russian Orthodox Church, I was a priest of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. Thus, I have spent four years in Israel, and on the one hand, and I’m familiar with the context, but on the other I cannot be impartial, still feeling anxious about my friends there.
Assessing the reaction of the Orthodox to the violence in Gaza and Israel isn’t easy. One needs to keep in mind many different factors that influence such a reaction, the complex nature of the Orthodox communities in the Middle East in general, the various statuses of Church leaders and their flocks, and so forth.
First of all, while the majority of the clergy holding the highest offices in the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem are of Greek origin and citizenship, the majority of the laypeople and parish clergy are locals spread all over the Holy Land, for most of whom Arabic is their mother tongue. This leads to the inevitable necessity for the Church of Jerusalem to be cautious in its statements, and to be aware of a specific context in which its words are heard and interpreted.
Secondly, Christians nowadays constitute a minority of the population in the Middle East in general. It means that particular Churches have to adapt to different contexts and to keep good relations with surrounding religious authorities, which are often intertwined with civil ones. It also means that very often they need to make joint statements to be heard at all.
Thirdly, there’s an Orthodox-specific tendency to be in quite close connection with the state authorities, which isn’t as straightforward in the Middle East, where jurisdictions frequently do not coincide with political borders and often cover several completely different if not hostile to each other states. Thus, there’s no real familiar Church-Nation or Church-State bond one expects to see in traditionally Orthodox countries. It makes the crucial decisions for the ecclesiastical institutions especially complicated, and the agreements they make often have a fluid and not public character.
Through this multifaceted prism, one might try to understand the position of the Orthodox on the events in Gaza. The initial reaction to the beginning of the violence in the Holy Land was published on the very next day after the Kfar Aza massacre, that is, on October 8, 2023. It is a joint statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. It condemns the violence in general, not picking any side, and takes into account the aforementioned complications. It is probably the best statement one could hope to make in the Middle East: “We unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or faith.” I should also add that such a statement is not only politically safe but is also profoundly Christian and hard to argue with. But at the same time, it is a statement that can be made almost at any point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also hints at the struggles that Christian communities have in the Holy Land.
The second statement was also joint and was published on October 13, 2023. Already here one can see a shift towards a more specifically framed rhetoric, and from here on all the reactions become connected to the particular events and not to the everlasting conflict in general. Although it speaks about an “unjustifiable attack against all civilians,” its main concern is the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and it calls “upon the State of Israel, with the support of the International Community, to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza.”
A few days later a new joint statement appears, denouncing “the criminal attack that unfolded within the precincts of the Al Ahli Anglican Episcopal Hospital in Gaza.” It is important to emphasize that here as previously all the support and compassion is directed towards all the civilians; the Churches do not support Hamas and its fighters in any way or at any given moment. But having their own complicated experiences with Israeli and Palestinian authorities, they developed a general distrust towards the official statements of Israel, which makes them easily accept the statements coming from Gaza. It is also necessary to take into account the fact that however small their flock in Gaza and Palestinian territories in general, they feel the need to support it first and foremost. While becoming the unwanted casualties of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks, Gaza Christians live in quite a hostile environment and are always suspected by their neighbors as potential traitors.
A separate statement from the Jerusalem Patriarchate also should be mentioned. It is connected to the casualties among the Orthodox Christian community in Gaza. Archbishop Alexios of Tiberias was appointed by the Patriarchate as responsible for the Orthodox flock in Gaza in 2001. From the very beginning of the current phase of the conflict and even now, Archbishop Alexios continuously stays with the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza (and all others who seek refuge in it) within the church compound, praying with them and supporting them in these dark times. So, the “strongest condemnation of the Israeli airstrike that have [sic] struck its church compound in the city of Gaza,” which was expressed by the Jerusalem Patriarchate on October 20, 2023, shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should it be doubted or disrespected. Although according to the official IDF position, Israel targets only terrorists, innocent people, including Christians in Gaza, still become casualties of the war. While one can fairly blame Hamas for all the deaths and sufferings of the people living both in Israel and in Gaza, one cannot also impose this point of view on the victims of the conflict, as their lives are still in danger.
To sum up, it is obvious that like all other Christian communities in the Middle East, the Jerusalem Patriarchate always condemns any violence without taking a position on either side. At the same time being aware of the manyfold risks that their communities are exposed to, it has to be very careful in expressing its position.
Furthermore, it is essential to keep in mind that in the Holy Land, nowadays one encounters not only the local Orthodox Church of Jerusalem with its mostly Greek hierarchy and mostly Arab-speaking flock. There are also people coming from the traditionally Orthodox countries, whether foreign workers, Israeli repatriates, or people married to the locals on either side of the conflict. Some of them comprise communities within the Church of Jerusalem. Others do not associate themselves directly with the latter, but participate in its worship, as well as in the divine services of the representatives of other local Orthodox Churches present in the Holy Land. However, the views of these various groups often differ from the official views of Church institutions and depend on their personal views and loyalties, place of residence, education, experience, etc. And their views cannot be expressed by any singular person or institution.
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