JERUSALEM -- Eleven Orthodox Church patriarchs convened here in the holy city Tuesday (Jan. 4) to celebrate the first Christmas week ceremonies of the new millennium and also to convene an extraordinary synod of church leaders for what may be the first time since the eighth century A.D. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Escorted by a band of Palestinian bagpipers and drummers, the patriarchs from Turkey, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and Jerusalem marched through Jerusalem's Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ancient stone structure marking the place revered as Jesus' burial site. Crowds of tourists and Palestinian Orthodox Christians cheered on the procession in the narrow, stone-paved streets of Jerusalem's Old City, newly renovated for the millennial year, and showered the black-robed clerics with Arabic greetings of welcome, flowers and rice. Led by the titular church head, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Istanbul), the group congregated at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for a special liturgy service. A chorus of priests chanted hymns and gospel passages in Greek, Russian and Slavic in the newly restored central chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, whose foundations date back to Byzantine times. "The Orthodox stick to the original liturgy and melodies, which is what makes it so spiritual," said one enthusiastic participant, Lee Papouras, a Greek Orthodox American from Cleveland who works for an
Orthodox charitable aid group here, as he listened to the haunting Eastern liturgy filling the ancient church. Later, the clerics were hosted by Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I, who presides over the Orthodox churches within the Holy Land. On Wednesday, the patriarchs are to convene for a formal synod, or pre-Christmas conference. It is the first time in centuries, observers say, that the church heads have met as such a formal unit and could be a prelude to new forms of unity among the long autonomous Eastern church bodies. Orthodox Christians here are hoping at least that the new spirit of dialogue might bode well for the local church, which numbers only about 100,000 adherents across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and another 100,000 in Jordan. The church has been troubled by the steady emigration of Christian Arabs to the West, as well as by tensions between the church's Greek-dominated clerical hierarchy and the Arab lay population. On Wednesday, in fact, several hundred Arab Orthodox protesters plan to demonstrate outside Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarchate headquarters against what they say is the clergy's neglect of local church needs for religious schooling, church development and financial support. "This is an opportunity for us to show the Orthodox world our dissatisfaction at what is going on here in the Holy Land," said Fuad Farah, chairman of the Orthodox National Council, a lay group that says
the church hierarchy has squandered millions of dollars it earns annually in revenues from the sale and lease of its extensive land holdings to Israeli concerns. Still, more mainstream Orthodox Christians are hopeful the millennial focus on the Holy Land might also help change the fortunes of the local church. "If the churches are meeting for the first time here, hopefully they will also make decisions to involve the local church members more," said Hani Kort, an Orthodox Christian from Jerusalem, who works as a civil engineer and turned out to welcome Tuesday's church procession. "This is the first time a universal celebration like this is being held in Jerusalem. Maybe the church leaders will begin to understand, as well, that this land is very important to them," said John Tleel, an Orthodox Palestinian author and journalist. On Wednesday and Thursday, the clerics are to be joined by an entourage of political leaders from the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union where the Orthodox church is a dominant force. Boris Yeltsin, who just resigned from the presidency of Russia, is expected to arrive Thursday, just in time to join in Orthodox Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem that evening. Two key patriarchs, however, have failed to appear here for the millennial event -- the patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) and the patriarch of Antioch, who presides over the Syrian Orthodox Church from Damascus. Politics clearly played a role in the absence of the Arab world's two key Christian leaders, acknowledged Father Philotheus, a program organizer of the conference from Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox church. Egypt is still at odds with Israel over Israel's claims to Jerusalem's Old City spiritual sites even though the two countries signed a peace treaty over 15 years ago. Syria, meanwhile, is only just now embarking on peace negotiations with the Jewish state. "We had the OK of the Israeli Foreign Ministry for the arrival of the patriarch from Syria," said Philotheus. "But the patriarch told us that since peace negotiations are just starting, he thought it would be better to keep the balance and remain in Damascus."
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