Monday, November 19, 2007

Sha'on: Updates and special hours

As recently noted by a Western journalist specializing in religious affairs, most maps and confessional patterns that were extant till some decades ago are obsolete at the present in the Near and Middle-East, in particular in the State of Israel and the neighboring countries, to begin with the Territories under Palestinian Authority. Indeed, Christendom does not mirror today the manifold changes that the Churches underwent since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The British occupied Jerusalem and Baghdad in 1917. In one night, the Turkish heads and authorities had left the Holy Land. The Ottoman Empire definitely collapsed in 1922 with the foundation of the Turkish republic - considered as a catastrophe by the nation. The British exerted their mandate over Palestine from 1920 till they left at the eve of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948.

This means that, for centuries, the Holy Land has been twice under the rule of the Ottomans and taken over, conquered or defended by some colonial superpowers, mainly the Christian kingdoms, empires and states that tried to protect - according to their own interests and privileges - the "kingship of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land". Let's say that, lately, the region that comprises Eretz Kanaan/Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Arabia has been protected by shifts by Rome and the Popes that launched the crusades (Great-Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy), then Mediterranean countries like Christian Orthodox Greece and the Russian Empire insofar it is possible to speak of separate national entities until the 19th centuries.

On the other hand, the crusades were launched for various reasons that did not necessarily aimed to protect and save the Holy sites of Christianity. Hungers, epidemic diseases, unemployment and terrible misery combined with the different splits that affected the unity of the Church do explain these moves towards Jerusalem. The local Church of Jerusalem has always been broken down into trends, which somehow is typically oriental. The crusaders were racing with appetite toward plundering and sacking holy cities and regions that had progressively become estranged to the unity of the One Church. They raped, murdered on their way to saving Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels. As a consequence, each nation and the papacy, Constantinople (first see for the Orthodox Christians), progressively sent their missionaries: this is why there are thirteen main Churches recognized by the State of Israel as the heritage of the Ottoman firmans (legal decisions/authorizations). The Franciscans have been present since the 13th century; the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem was cut down step by step. The Crimean war (1853-6) led in the Russian Empire mainly aimed at securing the Orthodox rights over the Holy Sepulcher... In the meanwhile, in the South of Eretz, the faithful were Lutheran and Anglican in the North - a pedigree German Kaiser-King of England agreement concluded by loving cousins.

The en masse arrival of Armenian and Syrian-Orthodox believers in the Holy Land after the Ottoman genocide in Turkey (1915), a lot of Maronites from Lebanon (in the 70 and 80ies) paved the way to other Western denominations like the Baptists, Mennonites and now Evangelicals... Some Christian Orthodox left the mother Church and joined Rome like the Greek Catholics (Melkites), the Syrian Catholics. Most Chaldeans live in Jordan. In Palestine, their Orthodox brethren, the Nestorians or Assyrians had been murdered in a few days by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 20th century. This means that the Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Ancient Churches and the sects that mainly appeared throughout history in Western Europe continue to live on a colonial pattern in the Holy Land and regard themselves in accordance with this hardened old-hat structure. The French Catholic “Freres – Brethren” educated generations of Arabs and expatriates of all denominations. The German Catholic and Lutheran presence is significant. The Russian ecclesiastical missions that had separated after the Bolshevik Revolution just reunified in May 2007, on Ascension Day. The Georgians wrote in Jerusalem their first texts and dwelt for a while with the Greeks at the Great Monastery above the Holy Sepulcher. The Serbs, the Romanians and other Orthodox used to reside in the country. A lot of educated Arabs perfectly speak Armenian who are well-read and whose convent shelters one of the most renowned libraries of the Christian world. This merely corresponds to a British-Ottoman map. The same is true with regards to the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in 1876 that had been suppressed after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Jews have always lived in Eretz Israel. They recurrently came up to the country in times of great distress or mystical movements (Rabbi Luria Caro and the Kabbalah), convinced by the false messiah Shabtai Zvi and the terrible pogroms in Eastern Europe in 1648. This provides a lot of keys to understanding how Israeli society develops in the present on the basis of messianic and prophetic internal drives that, in the end, may be spiritually stronger than the Shoah (Gerschom Scholem, Abraham Heschel).

People are used to the clashes that affect, on a regular basis, the relationships between the Churches inside of the Holy Sepulcher and its compound (Copts and Ethiopians). Photographs dating of the end of the 19th century show Franciscans and Greek-Orthodox clergy and lay people fighting with much conviction. It happened until recently. People should also know and experience that it is a unique place in the world where any human may come and pray and this is more significant than any division. Still, the traditional Churches have changed. The Franciscan Custody covers a huge territory composed of different countries where the faithful have evolved and live in the present on new patterns. In Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, i.a., the faithful of different Churches don’t share the same problems and life realities. Before 1967, Jordan exerted a full control over the Holy sites of Jerusalem. Today, the Christians in Jordan are much educated and totally Arab. The very few Christians that remain in Bethlehem and the West Bank feel isolated. Gaza is totally isolated and a shame for any human conscience. Galilean Arabs can freely feel Arab, Christian and Palestinian and still be Israeli citizens. On the other hand, everywhere different North American or Protestant sects, born along the Rhine by the time of the Reformation (16th c.), have shown up in the country and are active: the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals along with Messianic believers paralleled by some new wave Italian or Polish groups. Nonetheless, it is quite amazing how the Arab Christians of Jerusalem would not really pay attention to these historic splits and indistinctly frequent all these churches for personal or family convenience, thus maintaining a native form of unity.

It is true that the Christian natives suffers and will continue to go through hardships at the peripheries of Israeli Galilee and the Merkaz-Center. They are definitely not likely to speak out and still live with mental attitudes that swing between strong individualism and singularity of each sect and old-fashioned views that hardly can cope with the Israeli way of ruling and obligation of the people to be responsible for who they pretend to be.

Israel has a Christian unconscious part. It is in charge of an immense archaeological and spiritual heritage that tracks back to the first century and covers 2 000 years of monuments and spiritual life. It might be unbearable for some Jews at the moment. Three decades ago, I visited the Mount Tabor church and heard a father explaining in Hebrew to his son all the details of the Transfiguration (Hishtanut). He told me that his parents came from Poland and that being born in Israel, he felt totally free toward Christianity. He considered it was a duty to explain this to his son as a part of the local Israeli history. At the moment, the efforts developed by the State to gather the exiled into an Israeli and Hebrew entity might rebuke Jewishness in accepting any pretense or claim presented by the Christians. There is a huge gap that widens due to more and more ignorance on the Jewish side and lack of in-depth recognition of Israel on the Christian side. There is also a sort of interpretative absorption of Christian present and past that often does not match with the reality and prolongs the extant estrangement.

At different moments through history, time and hours, clocks (sha’onim) seemingly stopped or bent and curved the line of our understanding. This is terrible with regards to emunah - faith because it might obliterate existing connectedness for a while. We have been wrestling for ages, trying to envision the future and still looking backwards. Chizkiyah said to Isaiah: “What sign can you show me that the Lord will heal me?” Isaiah answered: “Shall the shade move ten degrees ahead or shall it go back ten degrees?” – Chizkiyah said: “It is easier for the shade to be extended by ten degrees… but no, let the shade turn backwards.” Isaiah asked the Lord Who turned the shade backwards by ten degrees” (2 Kings 20:1:11). Would we need some sign of that nature to understand that changes are at the heart of true and living traditions?

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