More than 15 different Churches live side by side in Jerusalem, most of them in a very limited space in the Old City: the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church; the Latin Rite Catholic Church; the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Syriac Catholic Church; the Chaldean Catholic Church; the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church; the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Catholic Church; the Maronite Church; the Armenian Church; the Lutheran Church; not to forget the unique Latin Hebrew-speaking Church, peculiar to here; etc…
All their memberships combined represent barely 1% of the population. None can boast of being particularly predominant with relation to the others, even if the Greek Orthodox Church and the Latin Rite Catholic Church account for most of the faithful and possess the majority of the Holy Places and the Christian properties in the Old City.
One of the challenges which unites them because they all face it together was explained this way in a declaration of Heads of the Jerusalem Churches, on December 13, 2021: “Radical groups continue acquiring strategic holdings in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, with the goal of diminishing the Christian presence. They often use underhanded methods, and tactics of intimidation, to expel residents from their homes, considerably diminishing the Christian presence and disrupting the routes pilgrims have historically followed between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”
Another challenge they all face is the administration of the Holy Places, of which the Holy Sepulchre is surely the most famous and most precious…It is a place where pilgrims from the West are often scandalized by the noise and seeming chaos…and yet: “The place which commemorates the Death and Resurrection of Christ can’t be the sole possession of one entity, it can’t be Catholic or Orthodox. It must belong to all. To claim absolute proprietorship would be to inflict a wound on the whole. If it were to become beautiful, clean, well-ordered, but belong to just one group, it would be a deep wound, it would be like saying to the others, ‘You don’t belong to what happened here.’ And so it is good that all be present in this place. It’s true, the way in which we are present is not ideal. The situation should be greatly improved. Things do change; just not at the rhythm Westerners are used to…” P. Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Interview Moltefedi Oct 28, 2020.
In this atmosphere, while the Christian faithful of all the Churches don’t make distinctions among themselves, while they often participate in each other’s celebrations, and while they marry between Catholics and Orthodox with no problem, at the level of the hierarchy the situation remains a bit more complicated, and dialogue advances slowly. Even if over the past few years fraternal dialogue has evolved in a more positive direction.
What does it mean, then, to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Unity in Jerusalem?
Like everywhere, of course, it requires us to first look at ourselves, our communities, our relations with other Churches, to recognize our own inconsistencies, our conflicts small and great, our jealousies and rivalries, etc., and to ask pardon from God and from our brothers and sisters.
But in a city like Jerusalem, torn by divisions and violence, the call to unity cannot and never could be an appeal to Christians alone. We all know that living peace and unity (or not) in Jerusalem has repercussions for the entire world. Praying for Christian unity in our context implies a goal bigger than just the Christian community. It involves unity among religions, and has as its final goal the unity of all humanity. Because of that, it is all the more certain that unity can only be a gift of God, and not just the fruit of our own efforts.
A few days ago were were in a car with a Muslim friend, a taxi driver. He told us, “I’m not an Islamic scholar, I don’t know all the fine points of theology, but I recognize that God has give me three things to help me live in this difficult time: patience, the capacity to forgive, and goodness towards difficult people. I try to live this first of all with my family, then with my neighbors and friends, and then with the people I meet, no matter who appears along my way…”
What if the Spirit of God is showing us the road to unity like this, by the mouth and wisdom of the little ones to whom he reveals his secrets?