KAFR KANNA — George Jaraisi owns a souvenir shop catering to Orthodox pilgrims just feet away from St. George’s Orthodox Church here. Among his merchandise is local wine – Kanna wine – named in commemoration of the Biblical miracle that is associated with this town: Jesus turning water into wine. Among the bottles on his shelves is a portrait of Jaraisi’s grandfather, Issla Jaraisi, a native Palestinian resident of the town who helped rebuild St. George’s several decades ago. But despite his strong connection to the church, Jaraisi said that he never even steps foot inside.

St. George’s, which is run by Greek monks like the Rev. Chrestostomos, does not serve his interests, Jaraisi said. “They want everything to be Greek,” he said. “Instead of bringing people together, they’re splitting them apart.”

Both Jaraisi and Chrestostomos are Greek Orthodox, like most of the 200,000 Christians in the Holy Land. But like many other Orthodox Christians, Jaraisi feels misunderstood by the predominately Greek leadership of the Holy Synod, the governing council of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and of the bishops under their auspices.

As the Christian Palestinian community continues to emigrate, now only at about 1 percent of the total Palestinian population, there is heightened tension between an increasingly shrinking indigenous Palestinian laity and the Greek priests of the leadership.

“There are very few Arab priest and monks within the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The laity have never really trusted the patriarchate,” said Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

Today, there are 1,800 Arab Orthodox Christians in Kfar Kanna, a village in the north of Israel near Nazareth. Orthodoxy’s presence here began in the 4th century when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, came to Syria Palaestina on a religious pilgrimage in which she sought out every place where Jesus performed a miracle.

In the year 327, a monastery was built around the church to house the dozens of monks who since have preserved the patrimony of the holy site through centuries of fires, earthquakes, and conflict – most notably during the Persian invasion of the 5th century. St. George’s reached its age of splendor in the late 19th century when Nikolai II, the last Russian emperor, bequeathed a large donation resulting in the installation of marble floors and floor-to-ceiling murals in the church. The former bustle of monastic life has been reduced to one abbot who preserves the besieged universe of St. George’s, Father Chrestostomos of Thessaloniki.

Chrestostomos said that where he’s from is not relevant to how well he can address the needs of his Palestinian flock. “For monks, we are like soldiers for Jesus. Everywhere is the same, we go where the patriarchate moves us,” said Chrestostomos. He dons a flowing black gown, and grows his hair out in a ponytail and in a long brown beard. His introspective brown eyes convey a loneliness that comes from being the only Orthodox priest in the community, away from both his native Greece and his fellow monks. “I don’t have friends here, I live alone, but I’m here for the families of this town. Someone must continue the tradition here.”

That tradition, though, is contested, based on conflicting ideas of the church’s purpose and the people it serves. Chrestostomos argues for the continuity of Greek cultural presence. “The abbot of this church must be a monk, and it is not easy to be an abbot. The fathers who led this church have always come from Byzantium and spoke Greek. The Greeks continue the original kind of Christianity.”

Chrestostomos was born in Greece, and his trajectory to St. George’s corresponds with how most enter the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the 15 self-governing or autocephalous branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jerusalem Patriarchate represents about 130,000 Orthodox Christians in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Chrestostomos insists that although he was born in Greece, he is steeped in Palestinian culture. “As a small child, around the age of seven, I left Greece to live at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. I grew up, and became a part of the patriarchate. Now, I’m like a visitor in Greece.”

In addition to the clergy who come from Greece, there are also Orthodox priests who were born and raised in Israel and Palestine, among them Archbishop Atallah Hanna. He in no way sees himself inferior to the Greek priests.

“We reject and refuse to be looked at as a minority,” said Atallah Hanna, one of a handful of Palestinians who are members of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Among the twenty bishops, only four are Palestinian.

Archbishop Atallah Hanna in Bethlehem, 2018.  Courtesy of Zeina Jallad

Archbishop Atallah Hanna is notable for his vocal political stances against the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. He was arrested in 2002 during the height of the second intifada, and accused the Israeli government of unfairly targeting him for criticizing the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“We are not a minority in our homeland. We are a main component in the Palestinian people and we are part of the struggle against occupation,” he said.

Archbishop Atallah Hana was born in the Arab town of Rameh in Israel’s north and grew attached to a local Orthodox priest there. He left for Thessaloniki to study Greek and the Bible, but insisted on being called his birth name Nizar.

“My family was so much in love with the great Arab poets and they decided to name me after Nizar Qabbani. I always went by Nizar even when I went to Greece, and I was always proud of that name. I was called Nizar until I became a priest.”

In 1992 Nizar was ordained a priest at the Church of the Holy Selpuchre in Jerusalem and was put in charge of Arabic language translation for all the church’s communiqué. It was then that he assumed the name Atallah Hanna or “gift of God.” “I climbed the ladder from the first plank of laity to the second of being a priest, third archimandrite and fourth as an archbishop – but I never changed. I will always be Nizar.”

“Christian churches in Palestine have always stood for the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said. “The church here is the mother of all churches and here is where Christianity was born…We’ve been here for more than 2,000 years and our roots are planted deep in this soil.”

Even during the Byzantine era when Greek influence was at its zenith, the patriarchs of Jerusalem were Arab, except for a brief interlude during the height of the Crusades in the 12th century. This changed in 1534 with the installation of Greek Patriarch Germanus who completely transformed the institution, removing Arab clergy and Hellenizing the Holy Synod. In 1669 his successor, Patriarch Dositheos, decreed only Greek clergy could gain entrance to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarchate’s then-highest body. This is the tradition which Father Chrestestomos is referencing, and which Archbishop Atallah Hanna pushes back against.

But their differences are much more than just cultural. They are also about land, like so much else in Israel and Palestine.

The tension erupted into the public sphere most recently in January when Patriarch Theophilos III was met with hundreds of Palestinian protesters in Bethlehem, angry over the recent sale of church properties to Israeli companies and settler groups, both in Israel and East Jerusalem. In 2015, they sold large sections of the Caesarea National Park for $1 million, and in 2012 sold 240 apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Oranim for $3.3 million to a shell company based in the Virgin Islands. According to real estate appraisers, the amount paid for the transactions was far below market-rate. Most of these deals weren’t made public until late 2017 when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained several of the contracts. The Jerusalem Patriarchate is the second-largest holder of real estate in Israel after the state itself.

In the wake of these revelations, the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour refused to attend the Orthodox Christmas celebration in January 2018, the first time in decades that municipal leaders have publicly rallied against the head of the Patriarchate.

The main Palestinian Orthodox protest group is called Gheyr Mostaheq which means “illegitimate” in Arabic. Formed in 2005 during the push to have disgraced former Patriarch Irenaios I resign, Gheyr Mostaheq is composed of a number of groups, including the Central Council of Orthodox Christians and the Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council. Irenaios was widely condemned during his tenure for a series of land sales in the Old City of Jerusalem to the right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim and is accused by Gheyr Mostaheq activists of embezzling over a $1 million. They remain critical of the current patriarch for what they see as a continuation of improper land sales without consultation.

“Land is very important for the Palestinian Arab community. Selling land is almost like selling a piece of their body,” said Bendcowsky.

“There’s a popular opinion that most of the church’s money comes from local Palestinian laity and the church’s selling of its assets is a betrayal of that trust. Does the church property belong to the clergy or to the community?”

The patriarchate says that it doesn’t have a choice but to sell its properties. “The church is doing the work of the municipality in Jerusalem. We have schools, hospitals, and the most important tourist sites, all with no state involvement. It’s a great burden to maintain these sites,” said Assad Mazawi, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

While many Palestinian Christians object to the selling of any church lands to Israelis regardless of them being in Israel or the West Bank, Mazawi says they are done pragmatically in the church’s interest and that there is no affiliation with the kind of Palestinian nationalism that Attlah Hanna articulates.

“We sometimes have different agendas than those groups,” said Mazawi, “The church has no Palestinian agenda.” Patriarch Theophilos re-affirmed this neutral viewpoint in a January op-ed in The Guardian when he said, “Jerusalem is a sacred gift, hallowed ground, for the entire world. Attempts to possess the holy city, or to define it in terms of exclusivity, will betray its true nature.”

In a striking omission, Theophilos doesn’t mention the dispossession and political repression of Palestinians in Jerusalem, a surprising fact given that most Palestinians, including members of his flock, cannot worship or reach the city without obtaining Israeli permits, a process shown to be increasingly difficult and arbitrary.

Chrestostomos blames the lack of Palestinian representation in the church on the fact that not many young people today want to become priests. “The Arabs want their children to be doctors and not priests. Today people believe in money. To reach the upper echelons of the church, one must enter the church at an early age.”

Yet Bishop Attallah Hanna says the church needs to try harder to incorporate the diversity of the communities they represent and forcefully act a political and social force for change. In 2009, over 3,000 Palestinian Christian leaders, including the Archbishop, signed the Kairos Palestine document outlining the church’s responsibility in opposing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. “Christian Palestinians are not alien in their own church. For us who come from this land, we reject being treated as fourth or fifth-class citizens. We are proud Christians, and it is a duty for each one of us to love our homeland and protect this nation.”