Bearing gold-clad Bibles, candles, and goblets of powdery incense, dozens of Orthodox patriarchs and bishops launched Christmas Eve celebrations at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on January 6. The event marked an unprecedented display of unity among some of the world's oldest church bodies.

The Orthodox Christmas services, the first major religious festivities in the Holy Land during the new year, drew nearly a dozen political leaders from eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union, including former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

Two key leaders—the patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) and the patriarch of Antioch, who presides over the Syrian Orthodox Church from Damascus—did not attend because of political tensions.

Egypt is at odds with Israel over claims to Jerusalem's Old City spiritual sites, although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty more than 15 years ago. Syria, meanwhile, is only now embarking on peace negotiations with the Jewish state.

Millennial Celebration

Thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims thronged the city's newly renovated Nativity Square to greet the Orthodox leaders, including the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I.

The celebrations coincided with the onset of Christmas Eve, which the Orthodox calendar places on January 6.

Mounted Palestinian police carrying small green, red, and black Palestinian flags escorted the limousines of guests to the ancient Church of the Nativity, which dates back to the Byzantine era of the sixth century.

An honor guard of Greek Orthodox priests, clad in orange brocade cloaks and carrying an enormous gold-bound Bible, led the delegation into the church's main entrance, a short four-foot passageway. The door, dating back to the Middle Ages, was built to prevent Mameluk Muslim rulers from entering the sacred hall on horseback.

Toward Unity

The religious leaders described the gathering as a prelude to a formal Great Synod among Eastern Orthodox churches. The last such synod occurred in the eighth century.

A series of meetings between the pan-Orthodox leadership during the week's festivities laid the groundwork for a synod, says Archbishop Szymon of Poland, who presides over the church in the Lodz region.

"This is a preparation for a pan-Orthodox council to talk about different religious points," he says. "Separation is not good. The church should become one, unified. But in what time that will happen, we shall have to see."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Orthodoxy, strongly supports unification efforts.

But some Orthodox figures fear such a reorganization might encroach on the traditional autonomy of the 15 Orthodox churches, which are organized largely by national identities.

Orthodox patriarchs and archbishops are eager to preserve their equality. The Orthodox regard Bartholomew, in contrast to a Roman Catholic pope, as "first among equals."

"One of the big differences in the Eastern churches is that they don't accept the primacy of a pope as in the Roman Catholic world," says Bishop Jann, who leads a younger generation in the Orthodox Church in Albania. "Still, we face problems in terms of how to organize ourselves today."

The problems include greater demands for autonomy from congregations in ethnic locales ranging from Estonia to Arab Palestine.

Shrinking Church

In Jerusalem, Orthodox Christians hope the new spirit of dialogue might bode well for the local church, which counts only about 100,000 adherents across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and another 100,000 in Jordan.

The church has been troubled by the ongoing emigration of Christian Arabs to the West, as well as by tensions between the church's Greek-dominated clerical hierarchy and the Arab lay population.

About 200 Arab Orthodox protesters led midweek demonstrations against what they say is the clergy's neglect of local church needs for religious schooling, church development, and financial support.

"This is an opportunity for us to show the Orthodox world our dissatisfaction at what is going on here in the Holy Land," says Fuad Farah, chairman of the Orthodox National Council. The council is a lay group that says the church hierarchy has squandered millions of dollars it earns annually from selling and leasing its extensive land holdings to Israeli concerns. Orthodox leaders also must deal with believers who have been shuffled and displaced by the mass population movements of the last century. No longer are Greek, Russian, and Balkan churches neatly organized according to ethnic affiliation in the old strongholds of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and eastern Europe. Instead, they are increasingly mixed and dispersed throughout Western Europe and the Americas."

There is a new Orthodox diaspora emerging," Jann says. "And we have to come to grips with that."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.