Friday July 1 — Old City, Tantur and Bethlehem

At breakfast we met our guide for today, Eyad, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem.  He led us into the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, where he had arranged appointments for us with a representative of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Orthodox Church.  He began by taking us to a Russian Orthodox Church about a block from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  In recent years the Russian Orthodox Church has begun reclaiming and refurbishing properties they own in the Holy Land.  Russian Oil money is flowing into the Church, and there are increasing numbers of Russian Orthodox Pilgrims coming to the Holy Land.  This particular church claims to be the ninth station of the cross.  A first century gateway has been excavated inside the church, and the Russians are claiming that this gateway was the gate Jesus would have exited the City on his way to Golgotha.  I have never seen this church before, because it has only recently been opened and refurbished.  I has also interested to see that Russian Orthodox Nuns have been sent from Russian to serve in this Church.

From the Russian Orthodox Church we walked into the Jewish Quarter, where the representative of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate is located in Jerusalem.  We met with Father Shimon.  He explained that the Syrian Orthodox Church was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch that split off from the Greek Orthodox about 1500 years ago.  He described himself as ethnically Aramean, descendants of Abraham, and the original language of his people, now the liturgical language of the church is Aramaic, the everyday language of Jesus and his disciples.  All of the scriptures of the Syrian Orthodox are hand written in Aramaic.  He showed us the pulpit Bible in his church.  He claimed that the public reading of the scriptures is the key devotional practice for helping people hear the word of God.








Father Shimon said that the Syrian Orthodox population diminished under persecution by the Turks, and now they are not fairly very well under the Muslims.  Presently the headquarters of the Patriarchate is in Damascus, and he is concerned, because he is not hearing a lot of news from Damascus.

Father Shimon claimed that the church there in the Jewish Quarter was built on the site of the home of John Mark and his mother Mary.  In the basement underneath the church is a room the Syrian Orthodox claim was the original Upper Room, where Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper.  Who knows?  We suspect that the House of John Mark was located some place in what is now the Jewish Quarter.

From the Syrian Orthodox Church we went to our appointment with a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.  Actually there is a Coptic Orthodox Arch-Bishop and Patriarch of Jerusalem, but there are only 700 Copts left in the Holy Land.  The Patriarch and most of his staff were unavailable, because the Patriarch is in Egypt at the present, and the Priest we were supposed to meet with was called away to moderate a dispute with some Muslims  over Church property outside of the Jaffa Gate. We met with Daoud, who told us that many Copts are giving up living in the Middle East and moving to America, Canada and Australia.  The C opts are very nervous about developments in Egypt.  They are afraid that a more Islamic government will put even more pressure on the Coptic community in Egypt.  He asked us to be sure we tell our people back home about the persecution of the Copts.  Pray for them.

We stopped for a falafel, and then caught a bus to Tantur Ecumenical Institute.  The Institute is located on forty acres of land, that was originally given to Notre Dame University to establish a Thand 50 rooms, as well as several meeting rooms including a hall that will seat 200 people and a large library. The Institute’s land is almost right up against the wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.  The land was originally owned going back to the 1100’s by the knights of Malta.  They operated a hospital there for years, and the British took it over in World War II to serve as a Prisoner of War Camp for Germans and Italians.

We met with Father Tim, who is a Greek Orthodox Priest from Nebraska.  He has taught at Yale and served Greek Orthodox parishes.  He has tried to foster an atmosphere of absolute respect for the other, as a way of creating a safe place for dialogue.  More than anyone else we have spoken with he understands and is sympathetic with our mission.  His answer to our question about how do people connect with the divine was:  I don’t believe religious experience is unique, no matter how different we seem, we all stand on common ground.  Once we use words, however, that is when we get into trouble.  In the end, everything leads to silence.  God is beyond everything – silence is communion.  Hospitality, radical hospitality is the key to communion.  He lamented that the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem is anti-ecumenical and in hospitable to all non-Orthodox, and some of those they aren’t too sure about.  The Latin Patriarchate is much more open.

We walked out the back door of Tantur, and proceeded to the check point to walk into the Palestinian Authority.  The first place we went in Bethlehem was a antiquities dealer and gift shop owned by Shibli Kando.  Shilbli’s grandfather was the businessman in Bethlehem who bought the original pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Bedoin’s.  The Kando family were leather workers, and the Bedouins had brought the leather parchment to them to make shoes.  After working with the leather the Kando’s noticed the writing on the leather.  And since they were Syrian Orthodox they recognized the writing as Aramaic and then as they read, they understood they had pieces of the Prophet Isaiah.  That is when Kando began to buy the parchments from the Bedouins, and resold them to the Syrian Metropolitan.   I bought some Christmas Ornaments made of Olive Wood and Shibili showed us one of the original scroll jars his father kept.

I noticed that just outside of Shibli’s shop was the Wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, so I went out to take a picture, and there I found a wonderful piece of graffiti.  I said, “Love Wins.”  I am going to use it on Sunday July 17.

From Shibli’s Shop we went to the church of the Nativity.  This was the first time I have visited the church, when there was not line to go down into the nativity Grotto to see the silver star, where they claim Jesus was born, and the little nook, where they claim was placed the manger.  I couldn’t get a good picture of the star, because a Greek Orthodox nun was polishing it and servicing lamps back in the little area, where the star is located.  Oh well.  At least this time I saw it.

We also visited the Catholic half of the Church of the Nativity, that was all decorated for a wedding.  It was good to know that it is still a functioning church, and not simply a museum.  Our guide is a member of the Parish and he even knew the groom.  From the church of the nativity, we left to cross the check point back to Jerusalem, and the process was not difficult, at least on this day.


We had Sabbath dinner, and now after finishing this blog, I am ready for bed.  It was a good day.


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