Call for Russian Orthodox Church to Missionize Israeli Jews

Stronger Russian Church Presence in Israel-Palestine Decried by Greek Patriarch

From Interfax:

Professor of the Moscow Spiritual Academy Deacon Andrey Kuraev said that the Moscow Patriarchate should begin actively preaching among the Russian-speaking Jews of Israel…He noted that the Russian Jewish community in Israel consisted mostly of intelligentsia (middle class), but he doubted that the “local Greek Patriarch” had enough resources to communicate with this group which “shows a great interest in Christianity”.

There are many Russian Israelis whose links to Judaism or Jewish identity are rather tenuous, but who have taken advantage of Israel’s “right of return” to move to Israel. If they are religious at all, their religion is likely to be Russian Orthodox Christianity. The consequences of this population shift (as I’ve blogged before) were the subject of a 1999 academic article by Ian Lustick, entitled “Israel as a non-Arab State”. Roger Owen briefly summarized the findings in Al-Ahram in 2000. Among them:

…First, no meaningful debate on the question of the Jewishness of the Russian immigrants can be carried on without raising the whole notion of the Right of Return and so, by extension, one of the main rationales for the Zionist project in the twentieth century. Second, given the demographic struggle between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, the Jewish Israelis would be unhappy about any diminution in the numbers they claim for their side. This also makes sense if one considers that the non-Jewish Russians are just as likely to be anti-Palestinian as their Jewish compatriots.

Seen from this point of view, the construction of Russian Orthodox churches in the communities where there is a heavy concentration of Russian immigrants makes perfect sense. So too does the increasing unwillingness to question people’s religion and ethnic origins. According to Lustick, the 1995 census was the first in Israeli history not to ask questions about what is obviously becoming an increasingly contentious, but also increasingly blurred, situation regarding individual religious and ethnic identity.

The ultra-Orthodox political party Shas is particularly opposed to this development, and has referred to the immigrants as “hundreds of thousands of Gentiles flooding the land with pork, prostitution, impurity and filth”. Given the noises currently being made by rightwing Israeli anti-missionary organizations (discussed yesterday) against Messianic Jews, a plan to “preach” to Russian Jews is not likely to be well received in certain quarters.

However, Kuraev’s jibe about the “local Greek Patriarch” being unable to missionize suggests that the Russian church has another priority: extending its influence in the “Holy Land”. As I blogged a year ago, the Russian Orthodox Church has over the last decade or so been reclaiming property in both Israel and the Palestinian territories which it had lost during the Communist era, and the re-unification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has doubtless made this process easier. Just a few weeks ago Interfax reported the return of an Orthodox compound in Jerusalem:

An Orthodox compound in Jerusalem, Segiyevskoye Podvorye, will be handed over to Russia in the coming months, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s official spokesman Eddi Shapira told a delegation of Russian journalists in Jerusalem’s City Hall.

…”The process should be over by the end of June,” the ambassador said, adding that the compound would be handed over to Russia.

According to a report in Russia Profile, the compound, also spelt as “Sergievskoe Podvorye”, is

a two-storey, 4000 square meter house with a spacious green courtyard, which was completed in 1879 as a hotel for the nobles and the headquarters of the [Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society].

This building was not included in property sold off to Israel by Khrushchev in 1964, as it was a private residence registered in the name of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. It became an Israeli ministry building, but is now “in decay”, and its return to Russian control was the subject of talks between Putin and Ariel Sharon in 2005. Russia Profile sees such property restorations as the resurrection of the nineteenth-century infrastructure for pilgrims known as “Russian Palestine”, but the compound would no doubt also become a symbol of the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, the organization which Time has described as Putin’s “main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”.

Meanwhile, tensions between the Russians and the Greek Orthodox Church are highlighted in another Interfax article:

The Union of Orthodox Citizens thinks unfounded accusations of Russians in “nationalism” and “aggressive policy” in the Holy Land expressed by Jerusalem Patriarch Theofilus III during his meeting with Russian media before Easter.

“The problem of failure to perform by the Greek clergy of their missionary obligations to the Orthodox Arabs and Eastern Christian unions correctly stated by the founder of the Russian spiritual mission Porfiri Uspensky is still important,” said the Head of the Moscow department of the Union Kirill Frolov to Interfax-Religion.

Theophilos had apparently accused Uspensky (1804–1883) of bringing racism to Palestine; Frolov in turn accuses Theophilos of preferring the “degraded, dependent, and inactive but unclouded materially position of the Jerusalem Church under unorthodox rule”.

A dispute with the Russian Church is just one more pressure for Theophilos: Israel has made it clear that it prefers his deposed predecessor, Irineos, who, although anti-Jewish (he’s on record expressing his “disgust and disrespect” for “the descendants of the crucifiers of our Lord Jesus Christ”), was at the helm when church property in East Jerusalem was leased to an Israeli settler group (I’ve blogged on this at some length, e.g here) – the deal was annulled by Theophilos. As well as this, Palestinian Christians have been agitating for some time for a greater presence within the clergy and decision-making processes, and a year ago Theophilos promised that things would be improved by now (I’ve no idea if Palestinians are now in fact more satisfied). And if all this wasn’t enough, he recently retained the law firm Carter-Ruck to pursue a libel claim against a British-based Arabic newspaper through the London courts.