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The Melkites of Jerusalem

text and photos by George Martin

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Entering the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate plunges one into a tumult of commerce: the shops draw in hordes of tourists eager to spend money. But turning left onto Greek Catholic Patriarchate Road leads one to quite a different world. The heart of this Greek Catholic artery, the Patriarchal Church, is a haven of peace and prayer. Most contemporary American Catholics churches seem barren by comparison; they may have a functional elegance, but one’s spirit is rarely swept heavenward simply by entering them.

Jerusalem’s Greek Catholic Patriarchal Church, on the other hand, seems alive with prayer even when silent. The vaults and walls of the church are covered in a symphony of color. Jewel-like frescoes depict Christ, the Mother of God and the saints. The iconostasis, a wall of icons separating the sanctuary from the body of the church, invites the worshipper to praise the one God with this company of heaven.

When in Jerusalem I usually attend Sunday liturgy at the Patriarchal Church. The congregation is small – emigration is a problem for all Christian communities in the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the chanting of the cantor and responses of the choir fill the church. Victor Nahhas, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, has been the choir leader and cantor for the last 13 years. Virtually the entire Byzantine liturgy is sung in Arabic, except for the familiar Greek refrain, Kyrie Eleison.

The Greek-Melkite Catholic Church, which counts more than 10,000 members in the Patriarchal Exarchate of Jerusalem, comprises Catholics whose origins can be traced to the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

During the great Christological debates in the fifth century, those Christians in these patriarchal sees who remained loyal to the established church of the Byzantine Empire became known as Melkites, which in Arabic means king’s men.

After the schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which culminated in the mutual excommunication of pope and patriarch in 1054, the Melkites retained communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In 1724, two men were ordained to fill the vacant see of Antioch. The patriarch of Constantinople supported one, a Greek named Sylvester, while the second, Cyril, reaffirmed his communion with the See of Rome. Forced to flee to the mountains of Lebanon, Cyril established a small Greek-Melkite Catholic community. The Melkites did not remain in isolation, however, as economic and educational opportunities took them to Egypt and Palestine. In 1773 these scattered Greek-Melkite Catholic communities were united under the person of a Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, who added Jerusalem and Alexandria to his title. Today a million or more Melkites, led by Patriarch Maximos V Hakim, are scattered throughout the Middle East, the Americas, Europe and Australia.

The Melkites are not the only Christians who have emigrated to the West. A significant portion of the Middle East’s Christian minority have fled the region’s civil strife; others have left seeking economic opportunities. The Israeli Palestinian conflict has had a serious impact on the church in the Holy Land.

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Tags: Jerusalem Christianity Emigration Melkite Greek Catholic Church