Christmas in Jerusalem: The Christian history in Israel's capital

Though a minority in a city with a majority of Jews and Muslims, Christians have a long history in Israel’s capital.

 A CHRISTMAS tree provides festive cheer at the New Gate, Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A CHRISTMAS tree provides festive cheer at the New Gate, Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Nayri Bawab, 21, stood next to a life-size blow-up doll of Santa Claus by the popcorn and sahlab stand she and two friends were manning on St. Peter Road, about halfway between the New Gate and Jaffa Gate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. She was smiling, not at anything in particular, but at everything in general on Friday evening last week.

The pre-Christmas Awab al-Kheef community bazaar organized by a group of local Old City Palestinian volunteers in coordination with local businesses and schools, which coincided with the annual Greek Orthodox Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at the Imperial Hotel by Jaffa Gate, had brought plenty of visitors to the Christian Quarter. 

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Palestinians and internationals mingled as festive lights decorated the crowded streets between the two gates. Musicians played in front of restaurants and cafes, a food and crafts bazaar in the courtyard of the College des Freres – or Christian Brothers School – on Jabsheh street near the New Gate had also been set up, as well as face painting and a bouncy castle at St. Joseph School on Saint George Street next to the Razzouk Tattoo Parlor. The Razzouk family has been giving traditional tattoos to Coptic Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land – and many others – for 500 years, and 200 years before that in Egypt.

“It means a lot for me to feel the spirit of Christmas here,” said Bawab, a resident of the Old City. “Sometimes people I work with at [the nearby outdoor] Mamilla Mall are surprised to hear there are Christians also living in the Old City. It is nice to see people learning about our religion and visiting our streets. It makes me happy. I wish for them to ask me more about our [religious traditions], what does the tree mean, who is Santa Claus, and what do our prayers in church mean.”

“It means a lot for me to feel the spirit of Christmas here. Sometimes people I work with at [the nearby outdoor] Mamilla Mall are surprised to hear there are Christians also living in the Old City. It is nice to see people learning about our religion and visiting our streets. It makes me happy. I wish for them to ask me more about our [religious traditions], what does the tree mean, who is Santa Claus, and what do our prayers in church mean.”

Nayri Bawab

Omar Ayoub, one of the organizers of the festival, which is taking place every Friday in December, said it was important to them that all the residents gain a sense of ownership of the area around the New Gate – the newest of the Old City’s eight gates. This gate was built in 1889 toward the end of the Ottoman Empire at the behest of the French consul, to allow direct access to the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for Christian pilgrims from the newly constructed Notre Dame Hospice across the way and Russian pilgrims at the Russian Compound outside the Old City walls.  

 FEELING THE spirit: Nayri Bawab mans a food stand on St. Peter Road, Christian Quarter.  (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY) FEELING THE spirit: Nayri Bawab mans a food stand on St. Peter Road, Christian Quarter. (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

“We want to let people get out of their homes here and have fun. We all jump in our cars to see the Old City of Acre; let’s have fun in our own city,” he said.  “We can do this ourselves; let’s have confidence in ourselves. We [Christian Palestinians] have a double identity crisis because we are under occupation, and we are a minority within a majority Muslim population. But we are not an ethnic minority; what makes us a minority is our religion.”

Just down the street, on self-proclaimed “Santa Lane,” an impossibly long line snaked outside the home of the Jerusalem Santa, local resident Issa Kassissieh. Parents chatted among themselves in English, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian as their children waited excitedly for their turn to visit Santa – or Father Frost for those celebrating the Russian New Year holiday of Novi God. 

“We respect all religions, and we like to celebrate with everybody,” said Anat Gendeler, 45, who came with her husband and three children from Rehovot to attend the festival.

Religious Jews walking back from Shabbat prayers at the Western Wall toward Jaffa Gate looked on curiously at the Scouts parade and the brightly decorated Imperial Hotel balcony, where a duo sang Christmas carols in Arabic and Italian, prior to the lighting of the Christmas tree by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III. Some smiled, while others simply continued hurriedly on their way.

It was a far cry from the attacks and vandalism which members of Christian clergy and Christian property often have to deal with in the Old City. The most recent attack was allegedly carried out by two Israeli soldiers from the Givati Brigade who were accused of spitting toward an Armenian archbishop leading the Feast of the Cross procession in early November. Unlike many other cases, the alleged perpetrators were detained by police on the spot and are facing disciplinary action. 

“Jerusalem is like a concert, it is not a soloist performer,” said Yisca Harani, an Israeli independent scholar of Christianity, in a phone interview. “In order to listen to the music of Jerusalem, you need to listen to all the instruments – you can’t push out any of the instruments.”

Members of the Window to Zion volunteer group, which began 10 years ago following a vandalism incident at the Protestant Christian cemetery on Mount Zion, as a project of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, were accompanying the Armenian procession – as they do for every Christian religious procession, and were able to photograph the attack. One of the volunteers was a lawyer who accompanied the Armenian archbishop to file a complaint with the police. With the presented evidence, the police were able to apprehend the alleged perpetrators who are now facing disciplinary action. Other cases of vandalism have not led to any such police or punitive measures.

Over 50 hate crimes against Christians recorded this year by new campaign

The Protecting Holy Land Christians campaign, an ecumenical campaign established last December by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, along with the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, said it has logged over 50 hate crimes against Christians in Jerusalem during this year. Such crimes range from arson and physical assault of clergy to desecration of ancient holy sites. The campaign has also aimed to address the controversial issue of the property sale of the Petra Hotel at the entrance to the Christian Quarter by Jaffa Gate to the settler group Ateret Cohanim, as well as other grievances regarding access to the Orthodox Easter Holy Fire Ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

AN UNOFFICIAL count of the Christian population in Jerusalem puts the number at about 10,000 – including the local population, as well as all the religious clergy.

There has been a Christian community in Jerusalem since the beginning of Christianity, with over a dozen distinct local Christian churches, some dating back to ancient times. These include Greek Orthodox; Armenian (both Orthodox and Catholic); Roman Catholic; Latin; Greek Melkite Catholic; Maronite; Coptic; Syriac (Orthodox and Catholic); Chaldean; Ethiopian Lutheran; and Anglican. 

Other Christian groups and churches also have a presence in Jerusalem. These include the Romanian Orthodox Church; both branches of the Russian Orthodox Church; the Austrian Catholic Pilgrim Hospice near Damascus Gate; the Mormon Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on the Mount of Olives; and the YMCAs in east and west Jerusalem. The west Jerusalem YMCA, located opposite the King David Hotel, held a popular Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on December 4. 

With the variety of the different churches, Christmas in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and throughout Israel, as well as the Palestinian Territories, is celebrated over a three-week period. 

According to the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day is celebrated on December 25 by the “Western” Catholic and Protestant churches, whereas the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate according to the old Julian calendar, which differs by 13 days. Consequently, the Greek Orthodox celebrate on January 6, and the Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 16. All three celebrations include traditional processions of the patriarchs from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. For the local Christian community, the Christmas spirit is the same, and they share in each other’s celebrations. 

MIGRANT WORKERS and asylum-seekers are also part of the Christian community in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, but the local Christians in Jerusalem share their Palestinian identity with their Muslim neighbors. 

“The majority of Christians in Jerusalem and its environs are Arabic speakers, but there are a lot of foreign Christians who come and decide they want to live here. As a result, there are [religious services] in English, French, Polish, German and Arabic,” said Harani. “But the local community is an Arab one, with the exception of the Armenian community which is not Arabic; they are Armenian in ethnicity but do speak Arabic because they live in the Old City [Palestinian context].” 

“Unlike in other places you go where you will find homogeneous communities of Christians, either as a majority or a minority, when you enter the gates of Jerusalem you encounter the variety of Christianities,” she added.

Just within walking distance in the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, concentrated along roads, some of which are named after the patriarchates, are the Latin Patriarchate, the Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate, the Maronite Patriarchate and the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James and Patriarchate. 

“In the Bible, we read in the [Book of] Isaiah that all the nations will come to Jerusalem, so it is something that is clear also in Jewish spirituality,” noted Franciscan Custos Francesco Patton, head of the Catholic Franciscan Custody, which has served as custodian of the Catholic holy shrines in the Holy Land for over 800 years. “And for us, it is important that Jerusalem continues to be a place in which Jewish, Christians and Muslims have free access to the places of worship.”

He noted the challenges presented by many of the recent municipal-sponsored festivals which extend into the early morning. These festivals take place at the New Gate next to the Franciscan monastery, disturbing the 80 friars who live and work there.

Local church leaders also expressed concern about what Israel’s new extreme right-wing government would bring to their communities.

While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected) is a well-known landmark, the history of Christians in Jerusalem and other holy sites is less so. An 1852 Ottoman Status Quo agreement regulates the ownership and responsibilities over the church by the Greek Orthodox, Franciscan Catholic Custody, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Churches, with the first three being the main guardians of the holy site. 

 CARRYING A Christmas tree past a Christian Quarter souvenir shop.  (credit: David Silverman/Getty Images) CARRYING A Christmas tree past a Christian Quarter souvenir shop. (credit: David Silverman/Getty Images)

New museums highlight Christian history in Jerusalem

Two new museums in the Old City aim to shed more light on the Christian history and presence in Jerusalem. The Franciscan Terra Sancta Museum, next to the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa near Lion’s Gate, takes a look through a religious and archaeological prism. The recently opened Edward & Helen Mardigian Armenian Museum, located next to the Saint James Cathedral near Jaffa Gate, in a building that was once used as an orphanage for 850 child survivors of the Armenian Genocide, presents the general and religious history of the Armenians. It includes a special section reflecting on the genocide.

Harani held a one-day workshop at the museum this month for Israeli tour guides. Some of them noted that often tourists and Israelis alike who visit the Old City don’t realize that it is not just the site of ancient Christian holy places but also the home of Christians who still live here.

“As an Armenian, as a Christian, I lived my life here normally,” said museum director Tzoghig Karakashian, who grew up in the Christian Quarter rather than the Armenian one, and now lives outside the Old City. “I went to church very normally, no one gave me a hard time. I went to school. We are a normal part of the city.”

Her parents taught her that everyone was equal, and her friends were Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian, she said. The museum came about to teach about Armenian history and culture to both “foreigners” and Armenians who may only partially know about their history.

“A lot of people don’t know what Armenians are. For me, it is very important that they know,” she said. “The museum tells about who the Armenians are, where they come from, what they have achieved, and how they suffered. It feels like the walls here are talking to you.” 

More than just holy sites

“Everybody knows about the Holy Sepulchre and even the Via Dolorosa, but they are very surprised to know there is a Christian community here. They come here with lots of curiosity,” said tour guide Avivit Brookstein of Tel Aviv. “You see what happens when there is a lack of education. People spit on Armenians, and it is shocking. I think we have to celebrate the whole city.” 

In Jerusalem, the interreligious Rossing Center for Education promotes improvement of relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, and offers courses and seminars for Israelis interested in learning more about the Christian communities here. 

“The Christian character [of Jerusalem] is not just the liturgy, but life,” said Latin Patriarch Pierbattisa Pizzaballa. “Life is family, with the families, with all the activities in the schools. We cannot separate the holy places and the parish from the life of the community. They’re part of the society. Jerusalem without Christians is not complete. But also without Jews. it is not complete. And without Muslims, it is not complete. If one of them is missing, Jerusalem is not complete. So any language that excludes one of them is against the vocation, the identity of the land, especially with Jerusalem.”

At the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III also emphasized the importance of a multi-cultural and multi-religious Jerusalem.

“In the lighting of this Christmas tree, we celebrate all that represents the true character of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and our centuries-old unique experience of our multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious life together, and our history of coexistence and mutual respect. This is a powerful reminder that Jerusalem is a beacon for the whole world, especially in the face of the turbulence and violence that affects the lives of so many,” he said.

“In the lighting of this Christmas tree, we celebrate all that represents the true character of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and our centuries-old unique experience of our multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious life together, and our history of coexistence and mutual respect. This is a powerful reminder that Jerusalem is a beacon for the whole world, especially in the face of the turbulence and violence that affects the lives of so many.”

Theophilos III

In the nearby Radio Café, political issues were not on Jamil Abu Joudom’s mind as he watched his two daughters Graciella, six, and Sofia, four, decorate gingerbread cookies.

“A few years ago, we did not have such events here,” he said. “We missed having that Christmas spirit and had to go to Bethlehem or Nazareth. This is a good movement. As Christians, we want peace and acceptance and love and to communicate with each other. Christians are considered a minority here, but that does not mean we don’t have a presence here. Such an event reminds people that they have Christian brothers and sisters living here.” ■