Jerusalem 2000, a journey to the Great Jubilee

The Christian Minority in Palestine By Rev. Dr. Antoun Issa

Rev. Dr. Antoun Issa is a preist from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, native from Aboud/Rammallah, Palestine, Judicial Vicar of the Latin Patriarchal Tribunal of Jerusalem and Nazareth, shows us what is important to know about the Christian presence in the Holy Land from the beginning to our days.

The Christian Minority in Palestine Throughout the Centuries

A historical-juridical study with contmporary intenational aspects

It is natural that Christians take a keen interest in all the historical and juridical aspects of this Christian minority. This church was born in Palestine together with Christ, it became a majority and then, beset by misfortune, dwindled to a minority again. Gradually reduced through the centuries, it became scarcely more than embers in the ashes until it was rekindled in the last century to become what it is today: the remarkable Church of the Holy Places. With such a troubled destiny, it is not surprising that the juridical systems of this minority have been so varied throughout the course of the centuries. The present community, for example, has an internationally guaranteed status quo which is unique in the Church.

The aim of this work is to do a legal study of this Christian minority in Palestine. The Christian Church in the Holy Land is but one of the layers of the ethnic and religious geology of Palestine. Today's level can only be explained adequately by history and thus presents us with only one alternative: to look back into the past of this minority. It is the existential reality of life which gives birth to the law and gradually codifies it. It was like this in Palestine for the religious minorities. Historic facts brought them into being and led them to acquire legal structures. This story of the religious minorities of Palestine, their legal entities, their arrival on the scene, their establishment and development, their make up, suppression, disappearance and finally their revival make for a fascinating film.

Because of this fact, I was obliged to approach this study not just as a monograph on one specific subject and totally limited by a time fiamework, but to make it a "theme". Biblical studies nowadays have imposed this accepted method of a theme, which strives to retrace the appearance then disappearance and the resurgence and development of changing situations in history.

But the Christian minority is not the only one in Palestine’s history of law whose destiny has been turbulent and complex. If we are to be exact in our examination of its laws, we must at least place it in the perspective of the majorities and the other minorities with whom it was born and with whom it developed. It is imperative to place it in its historical and juridical "milieu" as this can only enrich our view of this study. Only in this way can we understand all the otherwise strange details and then finally grasp the current remarkable legal position.

A study such as this would be incomplete if it did not reveal the world-wide international dimension which goes hand-in-hand with this minority. Palestine is piesently at the centre of world attention due to the serious problems concerning its religious, political and social structure:

“This is a complex and delicate problem regarding the possibility for all peoples of the region to co-exist, to live in peace; there are also questions of a religious, civil and social nature which affect the lives of the diverse communities who live in the Holy Land.(5)

One might fear that such a subject would have to be carved up and completely dissected into bits, but thankfully Palestine's history is evident in certain obvious periods: Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Otloman, and modern times. Our basic theme will be the legal theme of the minority that runs throughout its history, even though such a study requires a quick recall of the historical context which is the source and explanation of the legal systems. There will be something unquestionably original about this study. For each period there will be an explanation and an outline of the many problems which arose and took shape. These legal aspects basically make up the successive layers which rationalize the extraordinarily complex circumstances of today's minority. Thus we will have a comprehensive view of this history of minorities, the only thing that allows us to comprehend frilly the present legal complexity of its identity To clarify this process right from the start we now present an unquestionably helpful idea of what a minority really is. Since this concept entered international law at the end of World War I, it has been defined and redefined many times(6). Certainly the best definition - the culmination of lengthy efforts in legal formulation, is the one clearly set out by the 1950 United Nations sub~omrnission for Human Rights. “The term minority may be applied only to those groups of the population that weren't predominant and that possessed and wished to permanently presrve ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics which clearly differ from those of the remaining population. These minorities should comprise fairly sizable groups to possess such characteristics...(7) This modern legal definition of a minority actually covers a reality which has significantly evolved throughout history as this study will show. The definition neatly captures the three main aspects of today's minorities: ethnic, religious, and linguistic. But we will see that there is no possible competition for the religious element as the primary factor, even though the ethnic element quickly became as strong and tended afterwards to always take on a more important role, never managing, however, to oust the religious element from Palestine. This is important to note alongside this modem legal definition.


The Christian Minority Becomes a Majority


A.Origin and Development of this Minority

The very fact that this Christian community existed raises the question of its identity.


I) Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation "Nobis in animo”, on the needs ofthe Church in the Holy Land, March25, l974.Acta Apostolica Sedis(Vatican City, Rome, 1909), LXVI(1974). p.185.
2) Ibid. p. 180.
3) Ibid p.183
4) Pau VI, Talk at the conclusion of the Way ofihe Cross at the Coliseum, April 9,1971. Published In L'OssenvatoreRomano,” (Vatican City, Rome, 1916) April 10, 1971. It is also quoted by the Pope in his Apostolic exhortation "Nobis in animo" op. cit., p180
5) Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation “Nobis in animo", p. 178.
6) PIZZORUSSO, A, Le minoranze nel diritto pubblico interno, Milano, 1967, p.193 ff.; MESSINEO A,Il problema delle minoranze nazionali, Roma, 1946. p.99 ff
7) United Nations, Ahnuaire des Droits de iHomme for 1950, p.566.
8) Acts of the Apostles 1:8
9) Ibid., 2:41.
10) Ibid, 4:4.
11) Ibid., 6:7.
12) Ibid., 8:1,4
13) La Sainte Bible (Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem). Paris, I 956. Note a) for Acts 8:1.
14) Acts 8:5-6.
15) ANASTHASE BIBLIOTHECA!RE, Historia de VitisRo. Pont. (S. Evaristus), VI, 6 in MIGNE, Patrologia Latina (PatroIogiae cursus completus: series Latina), CXXV1I, 1135-1136; ibid.. Appendix ad vitas Romanorum Ponuficiun, CXXVIII, 1406, VI.
16) BAGATTI, B., Gezer cristiana, in Terra Santa (Monthly publication of the Custody of the Holy land, Jerusalcrn) vol. ) CXXVII (1961), pp. 286-289
17) EUSEBIUS. Das Onomastikon der biblischen Ortonamen. von. lic. dir. KLOSTERMANE., Leipzig. 1904, XXVI, 14-15, CVIII, 1-4.
18) MANCINI, I. Le scoperte archeologiche sui Giudeo-cristiani, Assisi,1968, pp.67-7!.
19) John 4:39: "Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman testimony".
20) La Sainte Bible,. op cit, Note c) for Acts 8:5
21) Acts 8:9-24.
22) Ibid., 8:25.
23) Ibid., 8:40.
24) Ibid, 9:32.
25) Ibid., 9:35.
26) Ibid., 9:42.
27) Jbid., 10:1-48.
28) Ibid., 11:1-18.
29) BAGATTI, B., L’Eglise de la circoncision (translated from Italian by Strome,A) Jerusalem, 1965, pp.16-20.
30) Ibid., p.16.
31) Ibid., pp.77-92: minim or heritics: these terms were applied to Jewish Christians by the Jews in the first centuries.
32) BAGATTI, B., Giscala cristiana, in La Terra Santa, vol. XXXIX (1968), pp.293-299.
33) TESTA. B., Nazaret Giudeo-cristiana: riti, iscrizioni, simboli, Jerusalem. 1969.
34) Acts 9:19-21.
35) Acts 8:3: "Saul tried to destroy the Church; going from house to house, he dragged out the believers, both men and women, and threw them into jail". I