The Greek Orthodox Church in Palestine, the largest of the Christian denominations, had long been troubled by a conflict (“controversy”) between its all-Greek hierarchy and its Arab laity hinging on Arab demands for a larger role in church affairs. At the beginning of the Mandate, community leaders, reacting to British official and Greek ecclesiastical cooperation with Zionism, formally established an Arab Orthodox movement based on the structures and rhetoric of the Palestinian nationalist movement, effectively fusing the two causes. The movement received widespread (though not total) community support, but by the mid-1940s was largely overtaken by events and did not survive the 1948 war. The controversy, however, continues to negatively impact the community to this day.
During the British Mandate, the Greek Orthodox community of Palestine engaged in two bitter struggles: the national struggle with the British-supported Zionist movement for Palestine and the communal struggle with the Greek hierarchy for control of the church. By the end of the Mandate, both struggles had ended in defeat, with Palestine lost and Greek control of the church undiminished. This article focuses on the second of these struggles, while highlighting the links that joined them.
The conflict between the Greek hierarchy and the Arab laity and lower clergy within the Greek Orthodox church in Palestine, though arguably dating to the sixteenth century, acquired greater salience in the late Ottoman period. Orthodox Arabs vocally asserted demands for “Arabizing” the liturgy and church administration against a background of centralizing Ottoman reform, great-power rivalries, and widespread social, economic, and cultural change. Although these demands had evident political and nationalist overtones, it was not until the British Mandate that the Arab Orthodox leaders— already disproportionately prominent in the Palestinian national movement and cultural elite—adopted the organizational forms, rhetoric, and goals of the broader national movement.
The question of the political self-identification of the Orthodox community (or, indeed, the Christian communities generally) has been neglected in academic writings on Palestinian nationalism. The only scholarly work devoted solely to the question of Arab Christian political activity during the Mandate period, that of Daphne Tsimhoni, views any Arab Christian political participation as perpetually conditional on an acceptance of “the marginal and secondary position to which they were doomed as the result of being a religious minority group.” This assumption that there was a fundamental, permanent, and unchanging divide between Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and the concomitant treatment of Christians as an essentialized and unproblematic category, needs challenging. More recently, such scholars as Issa Khalaf, Rashid Khalidi, and Ted Swedenburg have emphasized the multiple identities of Palestinians during the Mandate, but none have focused on the mechanics of the construction of new Christian communal identities or how they were deployed politically.
This article uses the records of the Arab Orthodox Congresses, correspondence with the Mandate government, and contemporary journalism to argue that, during the Mandate, Arab Orthodox movement leaders adopted a newly politicized language, organization, and approach in an attempt to recast the Orthodox community and cause as central to Palestinian nationalism. Although the politicization of the Orthodox cause met with some dissent from prominent Orthodox figures, the alignment of the Orthodox and Palestinian national movements repositioned the Orthodox Christian minority as an integral part of the post-Ottoman Palestinian political landscape.
The Orthodox Community and the History of the Controversy
In 1922, Christians constituted 9.6 percent of the population of Mandate Palestine, of which the Greek Orthodox community, as the largest Christian denomination, made up nearly half. Orthodox Arabs were more integrated with the Muslim population than any other Christian denomination, with a long history of social and political coexistence and interaction between the two. With large numbers in rural areas, Orthodox Arabs often shared festivals and holidays with their Muslim neighbors, and their leaders tended to be well-educated, middle-class professionals, especially prominent in journalism, medicine, and education. In the late Ottoman period, the two communities’ elites began to constitute a new kind of modern urban middle class in Palestine. Politically active Orthodox were highly visible in the nascent nationalist movement then developing in Palestine.