Change Font Size:   A A A

Mar 01, 2016 | Carol E. Barnwell

The Diocese of Jerusalem: Reconciliation at Heart of Anglicanism in the Holy Land

Anglicanism, which celebrates 175 years in Jerusalem this year, was first established in 1841with the arrival of the Rt. Rev. Michael Solomon Alexander, a converted Jew. The Church Missionary Society created a permanent presence in Palestine at the invitation of the second Bishop in Jerusalem, Samuel Gobat in 1850, supported in part by the Anglo-Prussian desire to unite Protestants (Anglican and Lutheran) led by King William IV of Prussia.


Today, the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem is home to 7,000 Anglicans in 26 parishes in five countries: Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Through its institutions, the Diocese responds to health care and educational needs of the people, with no distinction between religion, race or gender, maintaining a voice of moderation and reconciliation with interfaith neighbors. The schools teach peace, respect, cooperation and skills necessary for children to become responsible contributing members of society.


Bishop Gobat, who followed Alexander in July of 1846, opened schools, ordained the first Palestinian priests and ministered mainly among local Christians.  The bishopric became solely Anglican in 1887, centered at Christ Church until St. George Collegiate Church in Jerusalem was completed in 1898. Political tensions in the region have always affected life in the Diocese. The 1948 war dealt a blow to the Church in Jerusalem that took up the added task of helping Palestinian refugees. 


The Archbishop of Canterbury appointed the Bishop of Jerusalem Archbishop of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East in 1973, which then included the Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, North Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Cyprus and the Gulf. The Diocese of Jerusalem is one of four dioceses in the province. 


The Rt. Rev. Samir Kafity, the second Palestinian to serve as Bishop in Jerusalem, was instrumental in developing many of the local institutions and parishes of the Diocese and increased the numbers of those seeking Holy Orders. His successors have emphasized a just peace in the Holy Land and the Middle East. 


Bishop Suheil Dawani succeeded Riah Abu El-Assal in 2007 and continues his leadership today with a vision for peace and reconciliation marked by strengthening the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Together with global and interfaith partners, Bishop Dawani encourages reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and strives to make Jerusalem a model for peace among the three Abrahamic faiths. 


“It is our task to give hope to the hopeless,” he said, adding, “In our daily lives may we be guided by the star of God’s love.”


Today, the Diocese sponsors 20 educational institutions for 6,400 Arab children, regardless of faith. These schools include mainstream education K-12, centers for children with special needs and technical and vocational schools.  St. George’s College, near the Damascus Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem, was established in 1920 to provide theological studies for Palestinian seminarians. By the 1960s, political complexities and challenges required a broader vision to educate clergy and laity from the worldwide Anglican Communion in order to remain viable. Today, St. George’s offers courses for lay and clergy, opportunities for pilgrimage and a unique setting for interfaith engagement. 


Health care, especially for those who cannot afford to pay, is an important and growing ministry of the Diocese, which offers homes for the elderly, therapeutic residential facilities for special needs students, clinics, rehabilitation centers and hospitals. The Diocese has 200 hospital beds, rural and mobile clinics, which serve thousands of patients each year.  (See page 14,  June 2011 Diolog, for a story on the Jofeh Community Rehabilitation Center in Jordan and page 14 of this issue for a story on the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children in Jerusalem.)


Additional ministries of the Diocese include a vibrant women’s ministry, led by Bishop Dawani’s wife, Shafeeqa Dawani. Regional meetings empower and strengthen women, support them in their community ministries and develop leadership skills. 


Anglican youth are often faced with restriction of mobility and opportunity due to the divisions between Israeli and Palestinian areas of the Holy Land. The Diocese offers support for travel permits and scholarships, vital to strengthening the youth’s relationships; and leadership programs encourage young members to become leaders in their communities. “We invest in [our youth’s] schooling and formation to support them in becoming peacemaking citizens,” Bishop Dawani said.

Bishop Dawani engages in building positive interfaith and ecumenical relationships, both in the Holy Land and abroad. He seeks to foster peacemaking dialogue and to affirm Christians who live in the predominately Muslim and Jewish cultures of the region, and he has established a peace and reconciliation ministry through which he works to build mutual respect, acceptance and tolerance with interfaith partners. One such ministry, Kids4Peace, focuses on shared values of loving God and neighbor, which is evident in all three Abrahamic faiths and includes youth of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. (Read about Kids4Peace, page 32, Sept. 2012 Diolog.)

Christians in Israel number about 160,000 today, and while Bethlehem was once 90 percent Christian, today it is 65 percent Muslim. The Christian population of the entire Middle East has dropped from 20 percent in 1900 to 4 percent today and less than 2 percent in Israel and Palestine, according to a recent article in The Huffington Post.  This dwindling Christian population is due “to emigration caused by political strife, military occupation, and economic hardships,” Bishop Dawani said. One of his priorities is to strengthen that historic Christian presence as “living stones in the Holy Land.” 

The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem is engaged in a ministry of Faith in Action in an interfaith region, spreading a message of mutual respect and cooperation through its many institutions, working to bring peace and reconciliation to this conflict-torn region.  

The editor gratefully acknowledges the help of Archdeacon Emeritus Rafiq Farah, from the Diocese of Jerusalem for his help with this article.