Last night, we were honored by a visit from His Eminence Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia, currently the only Palestinian Orthodox hierarch of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Archbishop Theodosios is a charismatic and controversial leader who is often in the news here. In the early 00's, Theodosios, an Archimandrite at the time, was a leading critic of then-Patriarch Ireneos for his alleged involvement in the sale of Christian property in the Old City to a Zionist organization, and was a contributing force in Ireneos' deposition in 2005. With the election of the current Patriarch, Theophilos III, Theodosios was elevated to the episcopacy and named Archbishop of Sebastia, a village of Palestinian Christians in the northern part of the West Bank. As the only hierarch of the Jerusalem Patriarchate at present who is a native Palestinian, he is enormously popular among the Patriarchate's overwhelmingly Palestinian flock.
The Archbishop's English is limited, but his Greek is fluent, as he studied for several years at the University of Thessalonika. He and I conversed extensively before calling the group together for the Small Compline in the Chapel. After joining us for a simple meal in the staff cafeteria downstairs, we reconvened in a meeting room on the floor above the residents quarters for a talk about the plight of the Palestinian Christians, the forgotten Christians of the Holy Land. According to the Archbishop, Christians of all denominations make up less than 1% of the population of Israel and the West Bank. Speaking in Arabic through his interpreter Androwas, he spoke of his love for people of all faiths, and of his love for the Jewish people. Time and again he reminded us that "our grievance is not with the Jewish people or the Jewish faith, but with the oppressive policies of the occupiers." He expressed his great gratitude to the group for its ministry of loving service to the least of the Palestinians, those forgotten by their own families, the residents of The Four Homes.
The Archbishop was kind enough to set up a meeting with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem for myself and Fr Nicholas at 11:00 this morning. (As visiting Orthodox clergymen, protocol requires that we we present evidence of our good standing with our jurisdictions and receive the blessing of the local hierarch before taking part in any worship services in his jurisdiction.) Although the Patriarchate is only a few minutes from here by car, we will be leaving an hour early, to allow for the more circuitous route necessitated by the dividing wall, and for the heightened security we will encounter upon entering the Old City. Apparently today the cornerstone will be laid for the Third Temple of Israel (following those of King Solomon and Herod Antipas), a move perceived by Muslims the world over as threatening the existence of one of their holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock. What a day for my first visit to the City of David!
While Fr Nicholas and I are with His Beatitude, the group will work on another project, this time sorting through a storeroom of medical supplies to determine which are still useful and which to be discarded. By the time we rejoin the group in early afternoon, we hope the five who couldn't travel with us on Sunday will have arrived from the States, bringing our group up to its full count of fifteen students and three administrators.
To be continued.... (hopefully)
It's nearly 11pm local time, the end of another long and rich day.
Fr Nicholas and I entered Jerusalem by the Jaffe Gate, one of seven entries to the Old City, and the one closest to the Christian Quarter. We were met there by a Palestinian Christian woman named Nadia, who serves as treasurer (of, as she puts it, a non-existent treasury!) for the Board of The Four Homes of Mercy. The administrative offices of The Four Homes are close to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Nadia had been asked last night by Archbishop Theophilos to ask as our guide to it. Within minutes we were at the Patriarchate, a building of great beauty. We were taken into a large and stately reception room where His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III greeted the three of us with great warmth and invited us to remain as he addressed a group of a dozen Greek pediatricians who were visiting Israel, most of them for the first time, to take part in a professional symposium in Tel Aviv. Following that group's departure, we were invited by His Beatitude to meet with him in his adjoining office, where he spoke with us for nearly an hour. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the work of The Four Homes and was greatly appreciative of the OCF's involvement in its ministry. He also granted us permission to serve in the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre beginning this Saturday at around midnight and concluding in the early hours of Sunday. We left his company somewhat dazed by his largesse. I can still hardly believe the enormity of this blessing!
There's so much left to say, and so little time left in which to say it! We will be leaving for the Old City as a complete group - the five who couldn't make the plane last Saturday arrived while Fr Nicholas and I were at the Patriarchate - at 7 am, so that we can be at the Church of St James the Brother of the Lord for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts at 8 am. I'll post another entry, God willing, late tomorrow afternoon.