Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter, or Pascha, on Sunday (the five-week difference is due to their keeping the Julian calendar while the West is on the Gregorian calendar). More than 1,000 attended services at the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, where Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I led the service and passed out eggs.
Russian president Vladimir Putin attended a five-hour service in Moscow, led by Patriarch Alexy II. Almost everywhere in the Eastern Orthodox world, the standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity became part of the sermons and prayers. "Together with other local churches, the Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly called on the rival sides not to allow sacrilege of this church, as well as of church buildings and places of mass pilgrimage," Alexy II said.
The Daily Star of Lebanon said local Orthodox clergy were massively scaling back Paschal celebrations this year "in solidarity with the Palestinian people" and "in appreciation of the great sacrifices the Palestinians are making to regain their land and dignity." Antiochian Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim urged Orthodox Christians to protest "Israeli massacres committed against the Palestinians and specifically against the Church of the Nativity." Jordan's Orthodox leaders likewise canceled all but the minimum Easter celebrations to support the Palestinians and oppose the desecration of the Church of the Nativity.
At the church itself, Orthodox priests should have been moving from the Lenten fast to the Paschal feast. That's hard to do when there's no food. "It is hard to feel happiness this Easter, but I am praying for a miracle," said Rihan Murad, as he left a nearby Orthodox service. "We need a miracle that could bring the hearts of Jews, Muslims, and Christians together. Here, that would be a real miracle."
It looks like a smaller miracle might actually happen today or tomorrow. The Israelis and Palestinians have reportedly agreed on ending the standoff, and are now working out details such as how many of the 132 Palestinians inside the church will be deported. "The problem lies in the careful sorting of who is who and what, and I have a feeling that we are certainly moving in a positive direction," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, reports The Washington Post, Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem are now desperate to leave the city. "There should be 10,000 in my congregation, but there are half that," said Beit Jala priest George Shahwan. "The exodus is our biggest problem. We want to continue having a living church, but if this continues, the holy sites in Palestine will become like museums." Jabra Mitwasi is one of those who wants to leave. "If it were only for four weeks, I could stand it," he tells the Post. "But I know it will never end. It will keep on like this. There is no peace in this land."
Orthodox Christians are also leaving churches in the U.S., reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But at the same time, the church is seeing a significant rise in converts to the church. "They include former Roman Catholics who prefer Orthodox church government, mainline Protestants who want historic theology, Protestant evangelicals in search of mysticism, and Pentecostals who want liturgy to support religious experience," Thomas Hopko of St. Vladimir's Seminary tells the paper. The converts aren't outnumbering those leaving the church, says the Post-Gazette, "but they are providing a new generation of leaders."
What then, the paper asks, will that mean for the future of the Eastern Orthodox churches in America? They're currently "a crazy-quilt of overlapping ethnic Orthodox dioceses." But if the new leaders are converts, united more by theology than ethnicity, could "one, united American Orthodox Church take its place alongside the Orthodox churches of the Old World"? Don't hold your breath. The mother churches are unlikely to give up their control, especially Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). "There are fewer Orthodox Christians in the Diocese of Constantinople than in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, but it remains the primatial see," Hopko explains.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See our past Weblog updates: