Modern Christianity in the Holy Land

by Rev. Hanna Kildani, Ph.D.


Reviewed by Brent Strong, Ph.D.


Perhaps no region of the world fixes our attention and our concern as does the Middle East, and with good reason. We hear of revolutions, bombings, and missile attacks with terrible loss of life; we lament the contention between nations, religions, and ethnicities with economic and political disruptions; and we sympathize with refugees, injured, and children who are the innocents in these struggles. We know of antagonisms between Israelis and Palestinians, between Sunni and Shia, between Muslim and secular political factions, and between Eastern and Western cultures. All of these contribute strongly to the milieu of the current situation. But there are other important interactions and conflicts that are rarely considered and poorly understood yet they give foundation to the present day and reveal critical interactions between politics and religions. Father Hanna Kildani reveals these interactions in his study of modern Christianity in the Holy Land and gives an insightful historical perspective and a helpful current analysis that heightens our ability to understand and, perhaps, to contribute to the betterment of the Middle East in our day.[i]


In the General Introduction, Father Hanna (as his parishioners lovingly refer to him) notes several key changes in the leadership and focus of the Christian church in Jerusalem over 2000 years. In the first and second century the Jerusalem church consisted mostly of Jewish converts[ii], and yet, by the fifth century, the church had become infused with gentiles and had developed sufficient Roman authority that in the Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD, the Bishop of Jerusalem was named Patriarch of Jerusalem, thus creating the fifth patriarchate in the Old World along with Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople [iii]. The retention, renewal, and re-establishment of the title and authority of the Patriarch of Jerusalem are the concepts around which Father Hanna weaves his narrative.


The Jerusalem church preserved the Orthodox faith and prospered throughout the Byzantine period (330-638 AD) with converts from local Arab tribes, traders from throughout the Middle East, Bedouins, and Romans[iv]. The succession of Patriarchs during this period reflects this diverse church population, including several who were native Arabs. All were politically under the direction of the emperor in Constantinople and Greek was the language of the rulers while Western Syriac was the language of the masses.


In 638 AD Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim caliph Omar who guaranteed religious rights to the Christians so long as they paid a special tax for non-Muslims (jizyah)[v]. The former Byzantine leaders were accused of treachery and expelled so the linkage of the Patriarch of Jerusalem to Constantinople was severely restricted. The Jerusalem leadership became quite independent and the Greek language was replaced by Arabic as the church membership became ever more arabic.[vi] Over the next five centuries the membership of the Christian church declined in favor of the Muslims and so, when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the Christian church was a “weak and exhausted minority”[vii].


During the Crusader period the Orthodox Patriarch, who was considered by the Crusader kings to be from a different church (the schism between the Roman Latin Church and the Greek Orthodox Church having occurred in 1054 AD), retreated to Constantinople and a Latin Catholic Patriarch was installed in his place.[viii] Several Catholic-affiliated orders entered the Holy Land to care for pilgrims, protect and care for the holy places, and perform other monastic duties. The Franciscans, in particular, became custodians (Custos) over several of the most important holy sites and became the legates of the Roman Pontiff in Jerusalem after the Latin Patriarch departed with the fall of the Crusader kingdoms.[ix] 


During the early centuries of the Ottoman rule (1517-1800 AD), the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem was restored as the principal leader of the Christian population, under direct control of the Patriarch of Constantinople who was strongly influenced by the Sultan of Constantinople.[x] During the period between the Crusader Kingdom and the Ottoman rule, the Arab population had been given significant local authority, including being Patriarchs of Jerusalem, and so the Arabs were resentful of the return of the patriarchate to Greek control, calling this the “Age of Usurpation.” A few other religious groups, all with strong historical presences in the Middle East, were also recognized by the Ottoman government including the Franciscans, the Armenians, and the Syrian Orthodox. Each of these became both a religious and political subgroup (called a millet) under the overall control of the Ottoman Sultanate[xi].


Dramatic changes in the Christian community in the Holy Land began with the arrival of the nineteenth century – the age of revolutions. Events in Europe beginning with the French Revolution and through the nationalistic revolutions of 1848 and the formations of the Italian and German nations were mirrored in the Middle East with the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, the revolutions of Greece and of various Balkan countries, the challenge to Ottoman authority by Muhammad Ali in Egypt, and in the Holy Land where the native Arab population chafed at the aloofness of the Greek Patriarchs[xii] and the replacement of the Arab clergy by Greeks.[xiii] A key religious entity organized by the Greek Patriarch to run the church in Jerusalem was the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, a congregation of Greek monks that grew to have tremendous power but remained a highly restricted membership.[xiv] As a result of this strong Greek influence, a large number of orthodox members converted to the Latin Church.[xv]


In the midst of this turmoil, three churches – Russian Orthodox, Latin Catholic, and Anglican − sought to establish stronger presences in the Holy Land and it is the story of these three initiatives that is the bulk of Kildani’s book. The lives of important leaders, especially Patriarchs and Bishops, are related in detail. Christian communities, old and new, are examined. All this is done with a vigilant eye to the political and religious interactions that forced critical decisions and altered planned directions.


Many readers may be surprised that Russian Orthodoxy is among this group of churches seeking a position of dominance in the Holy Land, but upon reflection the Russian move is logical and perhaps expected. Historically the Russians claimed to be successors to the Byzantine Empire through the marriage of the niece of the last Byzantine emperor into the Russian royal line and from the Russian belief in the purity of Russian Orthodoxy through its close association with the Byzantine Church. This position was shown in a letter from a Russian monk to Grand Duke John Basil II (1462-1505): “The first Rome collapsed owing to its heresies, the second Rome fell a victim to the Turks, but a new and third Rome had sprung up in the North, illuminating the whole universe like a sun…The first and second Rome have fallen, but the third will stand till the end of history, for it is the last Rome. Moscow had no successor; a fourth Rome is inconceivable.”[xvi]


Additionally, the Russians saw the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, their traditional foes, and felt that by establishing a strong diplomatic and religious presence in the Holy Land the Ottomans would be further undermined. The Holy Land was just one battleground in the struggle of “Panslavism versus Panhellenism”.[xvii] The Russians played upon the resentment of the native Arab Christians toward their Greek clergy and sought to dislodge the Greek hierarchy and ultimately succeeded, at least temporarily, when a Russian was named Patriarch of Jerusalem and was accepted by the Arab population, but not by the Greeks who recognized a competing patriarch. [xviii]  The Russian efforts largely ceased with the onset of the Crimean War and World War I when the British influence became dominant.


The weakening of the Ottoman Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century provided a diplomatic opening for the re-establishment (after Crusader times) of the Latin Catholic Patriarch in Jerusalem.[xix] The pope wanted to provide better service to the Catholic membership in the Holy Land, to challenge the Orthodox Church in a time of perceived weakness, and to counter moves by the protestant churches into the Middle East. However, the Franciscans, who had been keepers of the Holy Places since crusader times, were fearful that their position would be diminished and so the General of the Franciscan Order opposed the move to create a Latin patriarch in Jerusalem unless the patriarch were to always be a Franciscan.[xx] The pope ultimately resolved the problem by naming a non-Franciscan as Patriarch but by affirming the Franciscans’ position as keepers of the holy places (Custos).[xxi]


The Latin Patriarchate was a success, although not without some major challenges – both political and ecclesiastical. Undoubtedly the strong personalities of the first patriarchs (Valerga and Bracco) contributed to this success as many forces, especially the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Ottoman government, were anxious to see the Latin Patriarchate fail. The Latin presence spread from Jerusalem throughout Palestine and into Jordan with missions converting many of the Orthodox Christians and providing a haven of care for Christians who felt neglected by the Greek clergy.[xxii] The Latin Patriarch established the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher as a rival organization to the Greek order and cited historical precedent from the time of the Crusades as rationale for its standing.[xxiii]


The Latin Patriarch helped to solve a serious problem among the Arab Christians in Kerak. Two Arab Christian tribes became entangled over a matter of family honor and one tribe, the Ouzaizat, was threatened with extermination by the other tribe. Rather than see warfare among his flock, the Latin Patriarch asked the Ottoman rulers to allow the Ouzaizat tribe to occupy a place of refuge and was awarded land in the vicinity of Madaba – a city that stood in ruins in 1879. Therefore, facilitated by the Patriarch, the Ouzaizats moved from Kerak to Madaba and established there a strong Christian presence that persists to the present.[xxiv]


The Anglican Church led the entry of the Protestants into the Holy Land and established a bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841 with the concurrence and assistance of the Prussian government and the Lutheran Church.[xxv] The initial cooperation of the British and the Prussians, with each partner alternately naming bishops, strengthened the Jerusalem Bishopric and provided the political force to withstand negative pressures from the Ottomans and from the Latin and Greek Patriarchs.


Eventually political difficulties between the Prussians (later the Germans) and the British led to the dissolution of the joint Protestant Bishopric. The Anglicans continued the Jerusalem Bishopric but then ran into problems as two factions within Britain competed for leadership in Jerusalem. One faction saw the mission in the Holy Land as a conversion effort aimed at the Jews. The other faction sought to convert the Catholics and Orthodox. Eventually the Anglican Bishopric settled into a neutral coordinating role as many other protestant groups, British and non-British, came to the Holy Land with a variety of missions.


Father Kildani closes his book with a discussion of the Non-Chalcedonian and Eastern Catholic churches that have persisted in the Middle East, many since the fifth century AD. The break over the nature of Christ that arose at the Council of Chalcedon (giving rise to Monophysites) is well explained and the history of these small groups (such as Nestorians and Jacobites) is fascinating to read. Some have joined with the Catholic Church but others remain independent. The history of the Eastern Catholics (such as the Maronites) is also interesting and reveals the historical nature of separations that remain because of tradition but are really just figurative in actual fact.


Modern Christianity in the Holy Land is certainly a scholarly work. Each chapter is replete with references and the detail concerning the people and events is truly astounding. Anyone who wants to understand modern Christianity in the Holy Land will surely use this book as a primary resource. The intimate linkage between politics and religion may not be familiar to modern readers, especially those who live in secular states, but this book demonstrates the importance of religious-political linkages even into the modern era. The book also captures the importance of personalities of the leaders, especially the Patriarchs and Bishops of Jerusalem in shaping the nature and work of the churches in the Holy Land.


Father Kildani is a Catholic priest but his treatment of the various religious groups is even-handed and fair. One theme, however, is strongly presented – the need for Arab Christians to be honored and recognized both as laity and as local officials within their churches. I agree.



[i] All quotes are from Modern Christianity in the Holy Land by Rev. Hanna Kildani, Ph.D. and are referenced to page numbers in the 2010 Edition by Author House, Bloomington, Ind.

[ii] p. 2

[iii] p. 2

[iv] p. 3

[v] p. 6

[vi] p. 6

[vii] p. 8

[viii] p. 208

[ix] p. 209

[x] p. 21

[xi] p. 9

[xii] p. 12

[xiii] p. 21, 22

[xiv] p. 21, 25

[xv] p. 23

[xvi] p. 41

[xvii] p. 67

[xviii] p. 87, 88, 195

[xix] p. 244

[xx] p. 246

[xxi] p. 280-284

[xxii] p. 424

[xxiii] p. 344

[xxiv] p. 383-386

[xxv] p. 442