To: Letter to the Editor, New York Times 212 556-4100
The recent article "Arafat Enters into a New Fray, Over a Russian Church," (July 11, 1997) presents a highly distorted view of the history and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in the Holy Land this century. According to the article the justification for the Palestinian Authority police and armed forces illegal and violent expulsion of monks and nuns from the historic Holy Trinity Monastery in Hebron, and subsequent installation of personnel of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), was the Patriarchate's claim that the Russian pilgrims are denied access to Holy Land shrines maintained by the ROCOR.
It should be obvious to all that whatever the nature of the dispute in a Church it is not to be resolved by the use of force or the arbitrary takeover of one's place of worship. If this unlawful act, a violation of the Oslo Accords is left unchecked it sets a precedent that should be cause of concern for all religious communities. As a member of the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene (ROCOR) located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem I feel obligated to challenge the claim that Russian pilgrims are denied access to our holy sites. Indeed nothing could be further from the truth. In our Convent church lie the relics of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who in 1918 was killed by the Communists for her devotion to the Orthodox Christian faith and her royal birth. Saint Elizabeth is highly revered in Russian to this day, a phenomena we are deeply cognizant of, for pilgrims from Russia visit our church on a daily basis to venerate her relics. While they generally come in small groups, about once or twice a month I hear the familiar refrain from one of my fellow sisters "A boat's coming this Saturday" which means we have to prepare ourselves for a visit of anywhere from 300-800 Russian pilgrims who are on a quick 48 hour tour of the Holy Land.
As well as accommodating these large groups we also take pains to host smaller groups of visitors. Mr. Schmemann is surely aware of this for in the last couple of months alone I have personally escorted him and guests of his from Russia and Canada, as well as priests affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate such as Fr. Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, around our Convent. And on June 13 of this year during Patriarch Alexis' Holy Land tour he and his entourage of some 150 were welcomed into our church and prayed before the relics of St. Elizabeth. To claim that ROCOR is "recognized by no one" and hence has no legal right to church property is simply incorrect. ROCOR has been legal owners of properties in the Holy Land throughout numerous historical periods, including the British Mandatory period, Jordanian sovereignty, and under Israeli jurisdiction. On a number of occasions the US government has intervened in order to protect these rights.
Ultimately though questions of who is legally "recognized" as the Russian Church in the Holy Land are meaningless and superficial. Whether it is the administration of a girl's school for the local Arab population in nearby Bethany or the maintenance of a place of pilgrimage for those from far away, the legacy of unstinting hospitality of the nuns and monks of ROCOR who have resided in the Holy Land throughout this century will always be "recognized" in the hearts of those they have served. To claim otherwise does a grave disservice to those who have come before us and only casts one more stone of conflict in a land so in need of the building blocks of peace.
Sister Anastasia Stephanopoulos
Convent of St. Mary Magdalene Jerusalem, Israel