Red-White rivalry survives in Holy Land

November 17, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- In the land where the holy men of the Bible preached tolerance and forgiveness, the Russian Orthodox faith has one God but two suspicious, unforgiving churches.

Their conflict has less to do with religious doctrine than with the history of the church in Russia and in the Holy Land. And it has everything to do with money.

bTC The White church -- the congregation of the czars -- controls valuable properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Red church -- the creation of the Soviet Union's Communist governments -- controls properties no less valuable in West Jerusalem and Israel proper.

Neither has been above making covetous glances at the other's holdings. Each has campaigned to establish that it is the true, rightful representative of Russian Orthodoxy.

Locally, they have tied.

"These issues can not be decided in the Holy Land," said Father Elysei, one of the three priests at the local headquarters of the Red church. "They will have to discussed on a high level in Moscow."

In recent years Israel has tried to steer clear of the rivalry, which has taken peculiar local twists. Church history and Russian politics have turned Israel's Supreme Court into a rent-paying tenant in a Soviet-owned building in Jerusalem, and Israel into the custodian of buildings technically owned by the Russian royal family.

Prerevolutionary Russia and its church began to take special interest in Palestine in the 19th century because it was the destination for tens of thousands of Russian pilgrims.

Many of them made the trip on foot and headed for the Christian holy places in Jerusalem and the banks of the Jordan River.

To help accommodate the pilgrims, the czarist government purchased property in Jerusalem and began a huge building program. When the work was finished in the 1870s, there were dormitories, hospitals, offices and a cathedral in an area that became known as the Russian Compound.

Later, Czar Alexander III paid for a seven-domed church built on the Mount of Olives in memory of his mother and named the church after her patron saint, Mary Magdalene. Russian Orthodox monasteries and churches opened in the port city of Jaffa and in Jericho and Hebron.

When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian monarchy, the church institutions in Palestine became White -- part of the church calling itself the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. It was hostile to the rival church set up by Soviet authorities.

All of the properties remained in the hands of the Whites until the establishment of Israel, in 1948. When the Soviet Union recognized the new Jewish state, Israel allowed the Red church to take over. Priests and nuns from the White church fled into East Jerusalem. Some were accused of helping Israel's Arab enemies and were expelled.

Israel ended up with both Russian Orthodox communities in 1967 when it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It also ended up with their disputes. Whites said Israel had seized their property in 1948, while the Reds made clear that they would not object to getting whatever the Whites still had.

Israel's solution has been to let the various institutions continue as they were.

The Whites sued over their earlier loss of properties, and Israel settled the suit by offering payment. It also purchased most of the Russian Compound from the Soviet government. Since Israel had little cash and the Soviet Union had little fruit, Israel paid by shipping oranges to Moscow.

Both churches continue to press various claims. Aleksy II, patriarch of the Red church, visited Jerusalem last spring and attempted to win Israel's support for getting clear title to the properties the church has controlled since 1948. A few months later, the Rev. Gleb Yakunin, a dissident member of the Red church, arrived to reassert the property claims of the Whites.

"We told them that if you want to claim property, go to court," said Uri More, head of the Department of Christian Affairs in Israel's Ministry of Religion.

For now, the Whites and the Reds maintain their separate, small communities. A total of about 80 nuns and priests are at White convents and churches. The number for the Reds is 50 to 60.

At the Church of Mary Magdalene, the nuns cannot easily imagine a reconciliation. "We do still pray that it happens," said Mother Anna, the abbess, "but there are a lot of points that have to be met." Meanwhile, the nuns there are proud that one of the sisters, now in her 80s, is the daughter of a czarist general.

Father Elysei, the Red priest, can think of only one sure point of contact between the local Reds and Whites: "We have the normal human togetherness that comes from people worshiping the same God."

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