Does the dispute over the Al-Aqsa Mosque affect the Levantine Greeks?

Saint George Greek Orthodox Church Lod, Israel - mosque minaret

The current crisis between Israel and the Palestinians is the latest round in a long conflict between Jews and Muslims over Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This conflict increased in violence and cruelty after the return of millions of Jews to the Holy Land in the nineteenth century and the establishment of the State of Israel as their national and religious homeland in 1948.

The conflict is currently focused on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built by the Muslims after their second caliph Omar occupied Jerusalem in the year 636 AC. By the Al-Aqsa Mosque, we mean a large complex of more than 140,000 square meters, surrounded by a wall, and including several mosques and Islamic religious sites.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located inside the ancient city of Jerusalem, which Muslims call "Medinat Al Quds", on a flat hill called the Mount of the Temple. By the Mount of the Temple, we mean the holiest place for the Jews, where a temple was built by King Solomon in the year 957 BC, including the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant.

In the year 586 BC, the Babylonian invaders (Nebuchadnezzar II) destroyed this temple and deported the Jews to Babylon.

The deported people returned to the Holy Land during the reign of the Persian Emperor Cyrus, and built, in 516 BC, the second temple, on the same hill, during the reign of Zerubbabel, a vassal of Cyrus. In the year 19 BC, Herod the Great renewed the temple and expanded the building, leveling the ground and constructing a wall around it.

The Temple Mount is also known as Mount Zion, towards which the Jews direct themselves when praying.

After the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in the year 70 AD, Titus, the Roman military commander, destroyed large parts of the temple, and Emperor Hadrian II later built, in the same place, a pagan temple for the god Jupiter including a statue of Hadrian.

When the Jews revolted again in the year 132 AC, the Romans destroyed what was left of the temple, raised a statue of a pig in their new pagan temple and started offering animal sacrifices inside it.

The Romans chose to erect a statue of a pig because this is an impure animal for the Jews which should not be placed into a holy temple.

As a result of this second Jewish revolt, the Romans renamed Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, and radically forbade the Jews from entering and residing inside the city.

This situation continued until the Roman Empire became a Christian dominated state in 330 AC. Constantine the Great ordered the destruction of the pagan temple of Jupiter and the search of sites related to the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.

Consequently, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and many other churches were built, and the hill of the Holy Temple, where the pagan temple was destroyed, remained in ruins because it was not related to evangelical events.

Jerusalem became a large Christian city, inhabited by 300,000 Romaïan citizens (Ρωμαιοι, erroneously called “Byzantine”, a word invented in the sixteenth century by a protestant German writer called Hieronymos Wolff).

This situation lasted until 636 - the Arab invasion of the Levant.

This brief historical summary explains the cause of the deep rift existing between Jews and Muslims: The Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the hill on which the Temple of Solomon existed and was destroyed by the pagan Romans erecting a temple to Jupiter.

Jews and Muslims revere this place and direct themselves to it in their prayers. Muslims deny the right to the Jews to pray in it, while the Jews hope to build the Third Temple in place of the mosque.

To what extent does this disagreement affect the Levantine Christians?

After the founding of Constantinople and the establishment of the Christian Eastern Roman (erroneously called “Byzantine”) empire, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Palestine and the rest of the western regions of the Levantine province were all Orthodox Romaïoi (Roman Greek) Christians.

They had two apostolic patriarchates in the region, one in Antioch and the other in Jerusalem.

However, the invasion of the Levant by the Arabs, the numerous wars that followed along 14 centuries, and the successions of the Islamic caliphates from the Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid and Mamluk to the Ottoman led to a decrease in the number of Romaïoi in the Levant.

Many of them converted to Islam, by force or by choice, and some others joined the Latin Crusaders and became Catholic. They were affected by a continuous trend of Arabization, losing their maternal Greek language.

The numbers of the remaining Romaïoi in the Holy Land, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Cilicia have become relatively small and do reach 10 percent at best. The Romaïoi lost, to a great extent, their spirit of belonging to the ancient Romaïan civilization.

They submitted to the dhimmi conditions meekly, and lost their daily contacts with their Romaïoi brothers in Anatolia, Greece and the Balkans.

However, the Levantine Romaïans (Ρωμαιοι) believe that they are the indigenous people of the Levant, and that their existence is still threatened, either directly due to persecution and marginalization, or indirectly due to the wars and conflicts of others on this holy land.

The issue of Al-Aqsa Mosque is the best evidence of the indirect harm that is inflicted on them.

This conflictual issue does not concern the Romaïoi directly, because it is a struggle between Jews and Muslims over the same holy place, which has the same religious meaning for both parties.

However, the worsening situation between these two religions is negatively affecting Christians in general and the Romaïans in particular, because the aspirations of Jews and Muslims to monopolize power and influence over the Holy City and the rest of the Holy Land automatically strip Christians of their historical rights in it.

Of course, the Romaïoi believe that Jews and Muslims have religious rights in this holy place, in which they have both existed for hundreds of years.

But Christians, too, have inherited this land since the time of the Eastern Roman Empire, and had built churches, monasteries and cities in it. They should not be exempt from their rights therein.

Therefore, the most appropriate solution for the city of Jerusalem in particular and the Holy Land in general is to have a participatory status, agreed upon between the three monotheistic religions, which protects the rights of all, allows participation in the disputed religious places, and secures freedom of access and pilgrimage for all Jews, Christians and Muslims.

On the multi-denominational Christian side, it is necessary to take into account the rights of the Orthodox Romaïans first, because they are the indigenous inhabitants of these countries since the time of the first apostles.

They are the descendants of the Eastern Roman (=Byzantine) Empire that recaptured Jerusalem from paganism and built churches and monasteries in the Levant.

They were the ones who, over the long centuries, took care of these monuments and guarded them, holding fiercely to their Romaïan civilization.

The Vatican, Paris, London, or any other western capital had never been deeply concerned with these historical Christian sites that were effectively explored and discovered by the Empress Saint Helena and built by great  Eastern Roman emperors starting with Constantine the Great and ending with Emperor Maurice.

These holy places were recaptured by Emperor Heraclius from the Persians in 628 AC.

The Levantine Romaïans always considered themselves the local community who defended and guarded the Holy Christian places, first during the era of the Eastern Roman Empire until 636, second through their attachment and fidelity to their paternal land under numerous and lengthy Muslim occupations, and third by the support that they received, after 1453 and subsequently in the following centuries, from the emerging Christian Orthodox countries, especially from Greece and Russia.

Effectively, the local traditions existing to this day properly consider the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem as the custodian and guardian of these holy lands.

It is no secret that the Romaïans of the Levant regard these lands and their religious monuments as part of their history, faith and existence.

Professor Negib Elias Geahchan is President of the Romaïan Cultural Society.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor