We are almost in summer. The weather does change and suddenly shifts from high temperatures and the desert wind sharav/hamsin heat to chilly nearly dizzling hours of cloudy atmosphere. This is also Jerusalem. Political life is always on the search of some corruption, rabbis and imams shake hands abroad, the heads of Churches are busy. Some would make an exact appreciation of their faithful or get a better idea of who is with whom as hurricanes passed but winds are not gone to the full. In many respects, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has finally one head who is recognized by the three political entities: Kingdom of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and lately the State of Israel. Theophilos III is like an "acrobat" among the various states and communities. The other head of the Churches are a similar situation, provided that the Holy Land will always be a juicy resourceful country for pilgrims and visitors. None of them really care about the closed situation in Gaza, blocks in the West Bank and the endemic war going-on along the Lebanese border.
The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel is celebrated in May, which is a huge time of holidays outside of Israel. It corresponds this year to Pesach and the Eastern Oriental Churches Easter, dragging flows of pilgrims. Some guides and bus drivers know how to go quicker to Bethlehem and avoid the long queues at the checkpoints. Others would systematically criticize the machsom - checkpoint structure where Eastern Orthodox Israeli soldiers welcome all sorts of Christians. Barriers can be from inside the way we conceive our faith.
But the real topic for tomorrow will be how the Churches will be able to organize and exercize a real spiritual guidance of the faithful that arrive in great number; they will come in even bigger and bigger number in the coming years. It is clear that the Israeli survey institutes had more or less anticipated such a development. In the past five years, although we were in the second intifada, some executives did schedule this development based on simple knowledge of history and common sense: abrupt conversion and return or discovery of Christianity in the former communist country in a context of Church competition and wandering from one to others. The ancient tradition makes the Holy Land a "point oblige", a must for the pilgrims and Christian reborn individuals and communities, clergy and lay people. This required a certain time to be accomplished insofar these populations were impoverished. New Christians are often new rich and fortune-makers, moguls. Israel had firstly to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff in such a mixed-up and rather confused (even at the psychological and spiritual level). The State might define rules allowing the Russian visitors to enter and come without a visa, like the Americans and Europeans for a short stay. 15 years have passed and the creation of a strong Euro currency, joined with a floating Dollar allow Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovenians and the other Europeans and foreigners to come en masse and spend more money.
Some Churches had anticipated the move and had built interesting structures, not necessarily in Jerusalem. This might be a pat of the pending competition targeting now the pilgrims and not the Israeli newcomers. Moreover, the Syrian Orthodox believers (they pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, Yiddish), multiply their pilgrims up to 300 individuals plus other groups from all over the world. They are based in the Old City, at the "Mother convent" but also in Bethlehem which is a full booked-up guest town after years of war and abandonment.
The traditional Greek and Arab Eastern Orthodox are questioned by the "rush" of tourists and pilgrims from the immense Russian republic and the former satellites at different levels. They feel they are weakened and have been reduced by various emigrations and new borders. This does not affect at all, for example, the Eastern Orthodox faithful in Jordan who are more coherently stable. This Russian rush interrogates the Arab Orthodox community in the Old City and the Greeks who head the custody of the Holy Places. This happens at a time when the Russian Church reunified exactly one year ago at the Feast of the Ascension. The Russian Orthodox Church seemingly shows as one of the most powerful and meaningful Christian Body in the whole of the Holy Land. It implies a significant reconnection with ancient and traditional habits (tours, spiritual entities). It appears that most pilgrims visit the sites as normal tourists, i.e. lodged in hotels, which is interesting. Last year, the Orthodox tourist agencies had seen that the Franciscan guesthouses were cheaper and they had hurried to book up the rooms...Georgians, Ukrainians, Eastern Orthodox from the former Soviet Union also come in a rather high percentage. This raises the question on the competence of their guides with regards to Christian true traditions and in respect with the Israeli Law in force. This means that a growing number of believers will have to be given correct catechization and spiritual information; this requires taking into account their traditions and the local and international laws and researches.
The "Russian Republic" rush is not restricted to the "Eastern Orthodox". The locally embattling situation with the Catholic Church of various Latin, Oriental, Ukrainian, Armenian, Syrian rites will drive in the coming months and years a great number of believers, together with Lutherans and Baptists. Many visitors speak Latvian or Estonian, Czech or Slovakian. This allows East-Europeans to meet with the local Churches that, by essence, should be beyond parties, politics and partisanship.
It might take some time, some years to the Israeli government and its police to develop progressively standardized relationships with the main Churches. Too many vital elements are involved and unresolved at this point. It is rather simple to explain how the celebration of the Holy Fire is carried out every year; the processions are the same. The "messy" atmosphere is a local must. But there is no reason for the policemen to get panicked and the event has nothing to do with a mob! The whole area had been closed to the faithful. This could be corrected by a simple one day seminar explaining the celebration to the IDF! On the other hand, it implies that the Churches - willingly, unwillingly - recognize the credit of the Israeli State. . . this is whole topic.
We can't live in the past and this maybe horrible. Two young yuppies visited with their friends and wives the Holy Land. The kind of rush and race that challenges any common sense and turns to be weird here. They ran through Jordan, were blocked at Eilat border for hours. This is the very moving story of a friendship between a Palestinian/Lebanese whose father was from Jaffa and a Jewish/Israeli businessman born to an Auschwitz survivor. Both living in a peaceful country and still fascinated by their origins. Secularized, unplugged from spiritual history, they were of total good will. As they were going up the Way of the Cross, the wives got their shopping tour. Ahead of them, a priest, dressed as an Orthodox clergyman, was reading in French the pre-Tridentine prayer book of the Catholic Church and was praying, a l'ancienne, the old-fashioned way for the pardon of our sins.
Faith is always under pressure and question in Jerusalem.