JERUSALEM -- Eleven Orthodox Church patriarchs convened here in theholy city Tuesday (Jan. 4) to celebrate the first Christmas weekceremonies of the new millennium and also to convene an extraordinarysynod of church leaders for what may be the first time since the eighthcentury A.D. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Escorted by a band of Palestinian bagpipers and drummers, thepatriarchs from Turkey, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia,Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and Jerusalem marched throughJerusalem's Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ancientstone structure marking the place revered as Jesus' burial site. Crowds of tourists and Palestinian Orthodox Christians cheered onthe procession in the narrow, stone-paved streets of Jerusalem's OldCity, newly renovated for the millennial year, and showered theblack-robed clerics with Arabic greetings of welcome, flowers and rice. Led by the titular church head, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew ofConstantinople (Istanbul), the group congregated at the Church of theHoly Sepulcher for a special liturgy service. A chorus of priestschanted hymns and gospel passages in Greek, Russian and Slavic in thenewly restored central chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, whose foundationsdate back to Byzantine times. "The Orthodox stick to the original liturgy and melodies, which iswhat makes it so spiritual," said one enthusiastic participant, LeePapouras, a Greek Orthodox American from Cleveland who works for anOrthodox charitable aid group here, as he listened to the hauntingEastern liturgy filling the ancient church.
Later, the clerics were hosted by Jerusalem's Greek OrthodoxPatriarch Diodoros I, who presides over the Orthodox churches within theHoly Land. On Wednesday, the patriarchs are to convene for a formal synod, orpre-Christmas conference. It is the first time in centuries, observerssay, that the church heads have met as such a formal unit and could be aprelude to new forms of unity among the long autonomous Eastern churchbodies. Orthodox Christians here are hoping at least that the new spirit ofdialogue might bode well for the local church, which numbers only about100,000 adherents across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and another100,000 in Jordan. The church has been troubled by the steady emigration of ChristianArabs to the West, as well as by tensions between the church'sGreek-dominated clerical hierarchy and the Arab lay population. On Wednesday, in fact, several hundred Arab Orthodox protesters planto demonstrate outside Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarchateheadquarters against what they say is the clergy's neglect of localchurch needs for religious schooling, church development and financialsupport. "This is an opportunity for us to show the Orthodox world ourdissatisfaction at what is going on here in the Holy Land," said FuadFarah, chairman of the Orthodox National Council, a lay group that saysthe church hierarchy has squandered millions of dollars it earnsannually in revenues from the sale and lease of its extensive landholdings to Israeli concerns.
Still, more mainstream Orthodox Christians are hopeful themillennial focus on the Holy Land might also help change the fortunes ofthe local church. "If the churches are meeting for the first time here, hopefully theywill also make decisions to involve the local church members more," saidHani Kort, an Orthodox Christian from Jerusalem, who works as a civilengineer and turned out to welcome Tuesday's church procession. "This is the first time a universal celebration like this is beingheld in Jerusalem. Maybe the church leaders will begin to understand, aswell, that this land is very important to them," said John Tleel, anOrthodox Palestinian author and journalist. On Wednesday and Thursday, the clerics are to be joined by anentourage of political leaders from the Balkans, Eastern Europe and thecountries of the former Soviet Union where the Orthodox church is adominant force. Boris Yeltsin, who just resigned from the presidency ofRussia, is expected to arrive Thursday, just in time to join in OrthodoxChristmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem that evening. Two key patriarchs, however, have failed to appear here for themillennial event -- the patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) and thepatriarch of Antioch, who presides over the Syrian Orthodox Church fromDamascus. Politics clearly played a role in the absence of the Arab world'stwo key Christian leaders, acknowledged Father Philotheus, a programorganizer of the conference from Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox church. Egypt is still at odds with Israel over Israel's claims toJerusalem's Old City spiritual sites even though the two countriessigned a peace treaty over 15 years ago.
Syria, meanwhile, is only justnow embarking on peace negotiations with the Jewish state. "We had the OK of the Israeli Foreign Ministry for the arrival ofthe patriarch from Syria," said Philotheus. "But the patriarch told usthat since peace negotiations are just starting, he thought it would bebetter to keep the balance and remain in Damascus."