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Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land

The land between the Mediterranean and Jordan River was called by the Romans Palestina after the year 70 AD. Historically the land of Palestine has been dominated by various people starting from the Canaanites and currently by the Israelis.

The people who live in the land called Palestine from the Roman era who identify with the land, its people, and its history are called Palestinians. The words "Palestinian Christian" are used to describe the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land instead of the words "Israeli Christian" or "Arab Christian" because this group of people have been shaped culturally and to an extent religiously by a people and history called Palestinian. "Arab Christian" refers to any Christian from any of the thirty Arab countries whereas "Palestinian Christian" refers specifically to a Christian person who has origins in Palestine in the Holy Land where Christ was born.

Some people in the West might think that the Middle East Christians surely must be the result of European and American missionary work. Don Wagner's new book on Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000 shows rather that Western Christianity is the younger sibling in debt to the perseverance and missionary outreach of the mother church. The title of his book Dying in the Land of Promise is a reminder of the tenuous character of Palestinian Christianity in this new millennium. The themes of deep-rooted Christianity and of the ominous character of death through conflict and emigration are interwoven throughout the history of the Holy Land. There has always been a major problem of Christian emigration. The Holy Land is currently home to over 160,000 Christians, many of whom are descendants of the first Christians. The Statistics from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem report before l948, the Christian population in the Holy Land was more than 18% whereas today it is less than 2% of the total three million Palestinians that live in Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli Military Occupation. The majority of the Christians are Orthodox.

The Orthodox Christian Identity in the Holy Land can be understood through the words of Nora Kort herself, the IOCC director in Jerusalem who is a Palestinian Woman and a Greek Orthodox living under Israeli occupation since her birth. Nora states: "As an Orthodox Christian, I trace my roots to the first Apostles of Jesus, so the Orthodox Christian Community has an unbroken connection with the first Disciples and most important with Jesus himself. But unfortunately, my church dominated by the Greeks has not been good stewards of our Palestinian Arab traditions or for our property." (Wagner, 2001, Dying in the Land of Promise. England: Melisende, p. 31)

Great hope is placed in the new Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irenios I of Jerusalem elected on Aug 13, 2001 and enthroned on September 15, 2001 to lead Christianity's most ancient Church. Born in the Greek Island Samos, the 62-year-old patriarch is a former envoy between Greece and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem for the last twenty years. Most Palestinian Christians are anxious for a new era where the Greek Orthodox Patriarch will take care of the flock as much as the holy sites as he holds the throne of the mother of all Churches.

The 1990s marked a significant transformation of the Christian presence in the Holy Land. As a result of the Intifada (Uprising) (sparked September 28, 2000) the Greek, Latin and Oriental churches set aside their traditional divisions and rivalries in a series of joint initiatives on behalf of justice, peace and human rights. Also their common public witness ended the de facto silence of the local Christian churches during the first forty years of Israel's existence.

Why Funding is Needed

Many Greek Orthodox Christians throughout the centuries have converted to other faiths to receive free housing and free schooling. The Melkite Church in the village has helped its members build a housing unit for sixteen families in the early l990s. The Roman Catholic Church recently helped build a small housing unit for four families above its kindergarten building in Taybeh. The housing committee of St. George Greek Orthodox Church wanted to do its part to meet the needs of its members by helping thirty needy families who do not own land in Taybeh build their first home.

Furthermore, funding for this housing project would give many workers jobs in the village at least temporarily. Many people have not worked since September 2000 because of the Israeli closure and blockade. The unemployment rate is estimated over 38% in the West Bank and 65% in Gaza according to the Palestinian Authority. The housing project would provide work for people in the village that make doors, window, builders themselves, people working with cement, electricity, etc. All labor would be contacted in the village only the engineers and major accountant are non Taybeh residents. This housing project would greatly boost the deteriorating economic situation in the village specifically and in Palestine in general due to the Palestinian Uprising.

The housing proposal was sent too many non-governmental organizations and general consulate offices in the Holy Land for funding but all replied that they do not directly help small housing projects. A direct appeal was made to IOCC but the verbal response from the Jerusalem IOCC representative was that the organization is providing humanitarian assistance and we are a low priority for help. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has helped the housing project by donating the land to the members of the church to use fota cilding purposes. However, it can not help in funding the houses due to lack of funds and the transition period between the previous Patriarch Diodoros I to the new patriarch. All other patriarchates in Jerusalem can not help St. George's Greek Orthodox Church because St. George's Church is only affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The catholic patriarchate helps build catholic schools and housing projects just like the one next to the village of Taybeh in the town of Birzeit that helped fifty Christian families obtain their first homes. Three million dollars were fundraised by Fr. Emil Salayta, a catholic priest (who was born Orthodox) for this particular housing unit completed in l999. The Birzeit housing project serves as motivation and encouragement for the housing committee to do the same in our village.

All Christians were Orthodox at one time. The Orthodox Church in the Holy Land controlled by the Greeks is not doing enough to meet the needs of the local Greek Orthodox Christians whom are of Palestinian descent thus when people find opportunities for education, housing, employment, they convert to get the full benefits of what other churches are offering to help preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land. The Taybeh Housing Projects asks Orthodox Christians specifically and Christians in general who are concerned about the mother church in the land of Christ's birth to please show their solidarity and their support by helping the only Christian village in the Holy Land maintain its unique role and place. Please help this historic village keep its Christian identity.

Dr. Maria Khoury

Dr. Maria Khoury

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