Today's Christian Denominations

Denominations today in the Holy Land or Today’s Diverse Denominations

Although the Christian church started in Jerusalem, and was one Church in the beginning, the section on history shows how the different groups developed. Today some have come back to the Mother Church quite diverse as if they were separate Churches. But theologically the Church is One Body. (We call them “denominations” in the West but they are known as “Churches” with a capital C, in the Middle East.) For details, such as the time of services, contact the Christian Information Center at Jaffa Gate. The Christian Information CenterThose that have come back to the Holy Land are described below.

They can be described in family groups:

Eastern Orthodox Priests

Eastern Orthodox family –

These autonomous churches are in communion with one another and the territorial principle is the norm of organization. The system of patriarchates comes from the early church when all Christians in a given area were believed to belong to one Church and continues today in Orthodox Churches as different from the Catholic belief in one world-wide Patriarch called the Pope. 

Greek Orthodox Church – This Church is considered the oldest Apostolic church and dates itself back to the apostle, James, the first bishop of Jerusalem. In 1099 the Crusaders expelled the Greek Orthodox Patriarch from Palestine. A community of monks known as the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher had been formed earlier and returned to defend the holy sites. The Brotherhood has conducted religious ceremonies at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher since the return in 1177. Greek Orthodox Patriarchs of Jerusalem are always Greek but the parish clergy and members are Arab. This is a contradiction of the principle that Orthodox Patriarchs are chosen by their own constituences.  A recent group called the Arab Orthodox Church has been contending with the Greeks for the role of Patriarch. They also object that the Greek Orthodox Church has sold Arab property to Israel and to Jewish organizations. 

Russian Orthodox Church (related to the Russian Patriarchate in Moscow) and the Russian Orthodox Church (Church in Exile) Both are products of pilgrimage by poor peasants in the 11th century. The Russian Revolution put an end to pilgrimage and gave rise to the Church in Exile. Both groups have churches in Jerusalem and there is continued dispute over which church belongs to which group. Holy Trinity in the Russian Compound is related to Moscow and the church in Gethsemane is related to the Church in Exile.

Romanian Orthodox Church – is located near the Jewish Orthodox quarter, Mea Sharim, outside the Old City. It was established in Jerusalem in 1935 mostly to serve Romanians living there. It grew as more Romanians came as laborers in Israel. St. George’s Romanian Orthodox church is covered in frescoes in the neo-Byzantine style in vivid colors.

St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Church
  St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Church

Oriental Orthodox family–

Armenian Orthodox Church (Armenian Apostolic Church) Christianity was preached in Armenia in the second half of the first century. In 301 C.E. Christianity became the state religion, even before Rome adopted Christianity. The word “Apostolic” is used to designate its origins by one of Jesus’ disciples. The liturgy was developed in the early centuries and continues to be celebrated most often in classical Armenian. Early pilgrims to Jerusalem built a compound with a monastery and St. James Cathedral as its center. On Wednesdays the service in the afternoon is the only time the cathedral is open to visitors, and features music by a choir with a leader trained at Julliard in New York. The priests are recognizable by their pointed hats symbolizing the resting place of Noah’s ark at Mount Ararat (according to some sources).

Ethiopian Orthodox Church – Ethiopians trace their origins in the Holy Land to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem. They took back customs from the Temple including rhythm instruments and drums which are still used today in the Ethiopian Christian churches. Ethiopian churches are often round with the sanctuary in the center, containing a sacred wooden tablet symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant. They have two chapels in the Holy Sepulcher itself and a church in the Ethiopian Monastery of Dabra Gannat on Ethiopian Street outside the Old City.

Ceiling of Catholic Co-cathedral
Ceiling of Catholic Co-cathedral

Coptic Orthodox Church – Tradition attributes the founding of this branch of Christianity in Egypt to St. Mark, who is also considered its first Patriarch. Monasticism was born in the desserts for both men and women and the monastic tradition has influenced the Coptic Church with its full or partial fasting for 210 days a year.  Visits and retreats at monasteries by lay people is a part of the religious practice. It is the largest Christian community in the Middle East and there are two Coptic chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Syriac Orthodox Church – This Church is named for the language, not the country, although some people refer to it as the Syrian Orthodox Church. The patriarchate was founded in Antioch in Greater Syria by St. Peter, the apostle, and included all of Asia. Antioch is the place where the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic which Jesus spoke in 1st century Palestine and the Bibles used in many Eastern churches derive from the Syriac rather than the Latin and Greek of Western churches. St. Mark’s Church in Jerusalem contains a picture of Mary and the infant Jesus, said to be painted by St. Luke, and revered as an icon.

Catholic Church family –

After the founding of the “New Rome” in Constantinople, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires split. The religious traditions split as well, and the West used Latin as a liturgical language while the Eastern Churches used Greek. The Eastern patriarchates believed that each patriarchate should choose its own Patriarch but the Western Churches emphasized the Bishop of Rome as leader and called him Pope. Controversies continued and in 1054 the two groups split. The Crusades cemented the division and the Roman Patriarchate occupied the property of the Orthodox in Jerusalem for a time. Through missionary activity of the Roman Catholic Church, parts of several Orthodox Churches pledged their allegiance to the Catholic Church but continued in their Eastern liturgy and practices. 

Latin Catholic Church (known as Roman Catholic in the West) – After Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands the Latin Patriarchate fled the country. The Muslims allowed the Franciscans (a holy order) into the Holy Land and they later became the Custodians of the holy sites. In 1847 a Latin Patriarch returned to the Holy Land and there are now three streams of the Latin Catholic Church – the Franciscan Custodians, the Catholic Patriarchate, and the representatives of the Vatican. Mass follows the Latin rite in the Arabic language or in a language of the pilgrims. Some local churches still use the Latin language for the Mass. 

The Churches formed by the Catholic missionary activity are often called “Uniate” Churches. Many Catholic religious orders have also established themselves in Jerusalem.

Maronite Church – St. Maron lived a monastic life in the mountains of Syria and after his death in 410 C.E. a community of followers continued to form. They kept their autonomy and became the only Eastern Catholic Church with no Orthodox beginnings. They were instrumental in the development of Lebanon as separate from Syria and still today the President of Lebanon is always, by law, a Maronite. The liturgy is rooted in the Syriac tradition and they use icons in their sanctuaries, but they have adopted some Latin Catholic practices and celebrate Easter using the Western calendar.

Greek Catholic Church (known as Melkite) – The currant Melkite Church was founded in the 18th century by a group that split off from the Greek Orthodox Church. They retain many Orthodox traditions but have adopted some Catholic practices. They worship in Arabic using the Western calendar and Eastern liturgy. The Church of the Annunciation inside Jaffa Gate is actually the best place to introduce yourself to Eastern liturgy and iconography. The modern frescoes cover the walls and ceiling and are meant to be read as a biblical text with one scene relating to another. It is a unique church in that way. Most Melkite churches are in the North. (The term “Melkite” comes from the Syraic and Arabic term for “king”. The term was used in early centuries as a disparaging term for Orthodox, but this is not the same use of the term.)

Armenian Catholic Church – This Church was formed over the centuries due to political and religious turmoil, and, like all Armenians, it suffered greatly at the time of the genocide in the 20th century. Because of their common suffering, this Church provides social services to all Armenians, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical (Protestant). The Armenian Language is used but the services follow the pattern of the Catholics.

Syriac Catholic Church (sometimes called the Syrian Catholic Church) sees itself as an Apostolic church because it was part of the spread of Christianity during the early centuries, and it understands itself as having roots in the Syriac Orthodox Church from Antioch. The ancient liturgy of Antioch is still used but Arabic is increasingly replacing the classical Syriac language. The Church often uses Western practices, such as the rosary and the stations of the cross.

Chaldean Catholic Church – There are a small number of families living in Israel and the West Bank but no ministers or formal churches.

Protestant Churches (called Evangelicals in the Middle East)

Redeemer Lutheran Church
Redeemer Lutheran Church

The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East was founded by the British as an Anglican Church, along with a German Lutheran Church begun at the same time. They shared a bishop for a short while but problems between the two countries brought this to an end. British people living in the Holy Land favor this service in English and often stay for the discussion groups following the worship service.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land is popular with American Protestants living in the Holy Land, with a familiar English language service and discussion groups afterward. Services are held in a renovated Crusader chapel in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. It is a good place to meet local Christians since the Arabic Lutheran service is scheduled for the same time in the main worship space.

St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church
  St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church

Scots Memorial St. Andrews Presbyterian Church is a single local church in Jerusalem, founded in honor of the Scotch soldiers of the Black Watch regiment who fought in the area. It is outside the Old City near the railroad station. The church is very active in serving visiting tourists and provides a place for indigenous Christians to sell their needlework and other artistic creations in a Fair Trade shop.

Quakers (Society of Friends) are centered in Ramallah where they have Quaker Meetings regularly. In 1869 they started their mission with a school for girls and in 1901 they added a school for boys. They have kindergartens in refugee camps and continue an emphasis on education and on refugees.

Baptist Churches have been founded by various different Baptist denominations and tend to be more conservative and more independent than the Lutherans and Anglicans.

Other Protestant Churches have not started congregations in the Holy Land but support it in different ways.  See the section on American Denominations.

Other related groups

Jewish Christian fellowships (Messianic Jews) meet in various places in Israel and the West Bank. The Israeli Jews object strongly to them and consider them a result of active conversion by Christians. The Messianic Jews are trying to recover the earliest Jewish/Christian churches written about in the New Testament.

Churches from the Syriac Bible tradition are little known by Westerners. When Rome went West with the Bible in Greek and Latin, some groups went East with a Syriac language Bible. They traveled mainly along the Silk Road and some have churches today back in Jerusalem and the West. One such Church is the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints) have a major presence on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with a university and many Western students. They have an agreement with the Israeli government not to try to convert Israelis.

The Korean Church was founded to serve Koreans working in Israel. Its origin is in the Presbyterian Church of Korea.

Christian Schoolchildren

In addition to worship and liturgy, the Churches provide social services, such as schools, libraries, hospitals, clinics, help for the disabled, and aid for Christian travelers and pilgrims.

Since the formation of the country of Israel, emigration has accounted for a significant loss of indigenous Christians in the Holy Land and tourism is being curtailed by government regulations, so the number of Christians is diminishing.

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