The Ecumenical Situation in Jerusalem, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011

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From Jerusalem, Jesus sent the apostles to be his witnesses "till the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). In their mission, they encountered many and rich languages and civilisations and started proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the Eucharist in these many languages. As a consequence, Christian life and liturgy acquired many faces and expressions that enrich and complete each other. From early times, all these Christian traditions and churches wanted to be present together with the local church in Jerusalem, the birthplace of the Church. They felt the need to have a praying and serving community in the land where the history of salvation unfolded, and around the places where Jesus lived, exercised his ministry and suffered his passion, thus entering into his paschal mystery of death and resurrection. In this way the church in Jerusalem became a living image of the diversity and richness of the many Christian traditions in the East and the West. Every visitor or pilgrim in Jerusalem is, in the first place, invited to discover these various and rich traditions.

Unfortunately, in the course of history and for various reasons, this beautiful diversity has also become a source for divisions. These divisions are even more painful in Jerusalem, since this is the very place where Jesus prayed "that they all may be one" (John 17:21), where he died "to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (John 11:52), and where the first Pentecost took place. However, at the same time, it must be said that not a single one of these divisions has its origin in Jerusalem. They were all brought to Jerusalem by the already divided churches. As a consequence, almost all the churches around the world bear their part of the responsibility for the divisions of the church of Jerusalem and therefore are also called to work for its unity together with the local churches.

At present there are in Jerusalem thirteen churches with an Episcopal ministry: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Latin (Catholic) Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church,the Maronite (Catholic) Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean (Catholic) Church, the Episcopal Evangelical Church, and the Lutheran Evangelical Church. Alongside these, a considerable number of other churches or communities are present in Jerusalem and the Holy Land: Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc.
All together the Christians in Palestine and Israel, number between 150.000 and 200.000, constituting between 1 and 2% of the total population. The large majority of these Christians are Arab speaking Palestinians, but in some of the churches there exist also Hebrew speaking groups of faithful who intend to be a Christian presence and witness in Israeli society. Besides these there are also the so-called Messianic Assemblies that may represent about 4 to 5 thousand believers, but usually are not counted in the numbers given for the Christian presence.

For recent developments in ecumenical relations in Jerusalem, the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land, in January 1964, remains a landmark. His meetings, in Jerusalem, with the Patriarchs Athenagoras of Constantinople and Benedictos of Jerusalem signal the beginning of a new climate in inter-churches relations. From that point on, things started moving in a new way.

The next important stage was during the time of the first Palestinian intifada, in the late 1980's. In the midst of a climate of insecurity, violence, suffering and death, the heads of the churches started meeting in order to reflect together on what they could and should say and do together. They decided to publish common messages and statements and to initiate some common initiatives for the sake of a just and lasting peace.

Since that time, every year the heads of the churches in Jerusalem publish a common message for Easter and for Christmas, as well as statements and messages on some special occasions. Two statements deserve special mention. In November 1994, the heads of the thirteen churches signed a common memorandum on the significance of Jerusalem for Christians and on the rights that result thereof for the Christian communities. From that time on, they meet regularly, almost every month. They published a second updated statement on the same subject in September 2006.
Until now, the ecumenical inauguration of the third millennium on Manger Square in Bethlehem, in December 1999, remains the most significant expression of this new ecumenical common pilgrimage. It was then that the heads and faithful of the thirteen churches, together with pilgrims coming from all over the world, spent an afternoon together, singing, reading the Word of God and praying together.

In 2006, the creation of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, in collaboration with the local churches, the World Council Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, is another expression of the growing collaboration among the local churches and of the strong links between them and the churches worldwide. It is at the same time a precious instrument in the service of this ecumenical growth.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel was initiated in 2002 in co-ordination with the local churches and the WCC. It involves volunteers coming from churches all over the world with the aim to collaborate with the Israelis and the Palestinians to alleviate the consequences of the conflict, and to accompany them in places of confrontation. This initiative constitutes another powerful tool for strengthening the links of solidarity, both in the Holy Land and with the churches where the volunteers come from.

Many more informal ecumenical groups exist in Jerusalem. One of them, the Ecumenical Circle of Friends, which meets once a month, has been coordinating the annual celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Jerusalem for about 40 years now. Each year this constitutes a remarkable event in the life of the churches.
The interreligious dialogue in Jerusalem, city considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims, also has far-reaching ecumenical repercussions thanks to the members of different churches who work very closely together in it. Together, in this dialogue they create the experience of the necessity to overcome past disagreements and controversies and to finding a new common language in order to be able to witness to the one evangelical message in an attitude of mutual respect.

For the Christian faithful at the grass-root level, in Palestine and Israel, ecumenism is part and parcel of daily life. Their constant experience is that solidarity and collaboration are of vital importance for their presence as a small minority in the midst of the majority of believers of the two other monotheist religions. Christian schools, institutions and movements spontaneously work together, across the borders between churches, offering a common service and bearing a common witness. Marriages among members of the different churches have become a generally accepted reality and can be found in almost all families. As a consequence they share each other's joys and sorrows, in the midst of a situation of conflict and instability, reaching out to their Muslim brothers and sisters with whom they share the same language, the same history, the same culture and with whom they are called to build a better common future. Together they are ready to collaborate with Muslim and Jewish believers in preparing the ways for dialogue and for a just and lasting solution of a conflict is which religion has too often been used and abused. Instead of being part of the conflict, true religion is called to be part of the solution.

What is also significant is that the church in Jerusalem continues to live in a political climate that is in many ways similar to the life of the early Christian community. Palestinian Christians have become a small minority facing serious challenges that threaten their future in many ways, while they are longing for freedom, human dignity, justice, peace and security.

In the midst of all of this, the Christians of the Jerusalem churches address their brothers and sisters around the world through this week of prayer for Christian unity to pray with them and for them in order to reach their aspirations for freedom, and dignity and the end of all kind of human oppression. The Church lifts up its voice in prayer to God in anticipation and hope for itself and the world so that we all may be one in our faith, in our witness, and in our love.

                                                                   Copyright © 2010 Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute