New Challenge for Arafat: A Russian Church
New York Times, July 11, 1997

[Note: a response to this article was sent to the New York Times by a nun in Israel: Sister Anastasia ]

Hebron, West Bank -- Intervening in an old dispute between rival Russian Orthodox churches, Palestinian police have forcibly evicted expatriate monks and nuns from Hebron's only Christian church and have given it to representatives of the Russian patriarch in Moscow.

The action on Saturday came three weeks after Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made an official visit to Israel and formally asked Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, to recognize Moscow's claim to pre-Revolutionary Russian church properties under the authority's control.

Arafat's aggressive intervention touched deep-rooted passions and disputes that still smolder eight decades after the Russian Revolution.

Clerics of the expatriate church bitterly charged that the Palestinians beat their monks and nuns in expelling them, while the Moscow-based church charged that the expatriates have refused to share access to Russian shrines with the Russian church in whose name they were maintaining them.

The focus of the dispute is a site acquired by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1868, which includes an ancient oak that was declared to be the spot where Abraham entertained three angels. The site was a major attraction for Russian pilgrims before the revolution, and is the only functioning Christian shrine in Hebron.

After the Russian Revolution, the property came under the control of an emigre denomination called the the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, now based in New York. Despite the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991 and the rapid revival of the Russian church since, the small exile denomination has continued to view the Russian patriarch and his church as indelibly tainted by communism, and itself as the true successor to the pre-revolutionary church.

According to witnesses, officers of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service arrived at the church on Saturday morning and ordered the monks and nuns to leave. When they refused, they were evicted by force.

What apparently persuaded Arafat to accede to the request of the Moscow patriarch was an incident during Alexy's visit last month, when he and a large group of Palestinian, Russian and Greek Orthodox dignitaries were barred by emigre nuns from visiting the Hebron church.

The emigres had earlier refused to receive the patriarch at a Russian Orthodox convent on the Mount of Olives. Then, evidently expecting that the Moscow delegation would try to visit Hebron, they hid the key to the church there.

The Patriarch arrived in Hebron from a formal lunch with Arafat, and his Palestinian hosts, chagrined to find the door locked, pried it open. According to Palestinian officials, Arafat was furious.

Evidently adding to Palestinian pique was the fact that the emigre church had refused a request by Mayor Mustafa Natshe of Hebron to lease some church-owned lands.

Arafat's autocratic and forceful intervention in an internal church dispute was bound to raise objections and apprehensions. But in his decision to recognize Moscow's claim, he was following a precedent set by Israel.

Before the Russian Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Russian pilgrims flocked annually to the Holy Land, and the Russian state and church built numerous hospices, monasteries and churches to handle the flood. They include some sites well known today, including the Russian Compound, in Jerusalem, part of which is an Israeli jail, and two picturesque convents on the Mount of Olives.

After the revolution, the properties were put in the trust of the Russian Church Outside Russia. But in 1948, after the Soviet Union became the first government to recognize the state of Israel, Israel returned all Russian church properties on its territory to the Moscow patriarch, including the Russian Compound. In scenes not unlike Saturday's, emigre clerics were expelled.

The Russian properties in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule, remained under the exile church, which sold some of them. When Israel conquered these territories in 1967, it retained the status quo, leaving two rival organizations on Israeli-controlled territory claiming to be the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, each controlling part of the Russian property.

With the revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia over the past six years, Russian pilgrims have come to Israel in huge numbers, and Alexy resumed efforts to reclaim properties that in his view have always been the property of the Russian Orthodox Church, whether controlled by Moscow or by the emigres.

That effort, said the Rev. Mark Golovkov, an official in the Moscow-based Russian mission in Jerusalem, has been spurred by the uncompromising stance of the small exile church.

"We're ready to receive them all, but for a long time, the Mount of Olives Monastery did not allow Russian priests to enter," he said. "Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists can enter, but God forbid that a Russian priest enter.

"They must understand that they're not recognized by anyone, and that all the properties they call theirs were built and bought by Russia for Russian money to serve Russian pilgrims. Yet the Russian patriarch cannot enter the monastery to pray."

(The following is a translation from the Russian of an official report dated July 7, 1997 to the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia by Rev. Archimundrite Bartholomew, Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Misslon of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Jerusalem)

At approx. 10:30 A.M. July 5, police in jeeps drove onto the territory of our monastery in Hebron, and began to demand that occupants of the monastery leave within 24 hours. It must be noted, that such visits by various groups of security forces of the Palestinian Autonomy occurred almost daily, beginning June 7 through July 5, when, finally, armed Palestinian policemen took the monastery "by storm."

It is also significant, that they resolved to storm (the monastery) after the return of Yasser Arafat--the decision having indeed been taken at the highest level.

During all of these events were present representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate: the chief of their Mission, Archimandrite Theodosius, hieromonk Gourry and a few nuns from thc Gornensky monastery. A representative of the Russian consulate also observed the proceedings.

The "modus operandi" ofthe Palestinian police were quite simple and sufficiently cruel. At first they broke open the locked doors of the monks' living quarters, the monks were ordered to take their belongings and get out. Then the atmosphere became increasingly more tense; women police arrived to remove the nuns. The police were told in no uncertain terms that we would not abandon the monastery, that we would not leave the property of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

With the arrival of one of the highest-ranked policemen, who screamed at our nuns and used foul language events began to take on a cruel character: they started to drag all of us our into the street by our hands, by our feet; and when we attempted to resist by hanging on to something - they began to beat us.

The Abbess Juliana was dragged along the floor by policewomen, full of hatred. Her head was hit a few times upon stone steps. She is now in a hospital, her body in bruises from pummeling and with pains in her head.

The nun Natalia was beaten in the stomach by policewomen, who were assisted in this by policemen, hitting her head against a wall. The monk Anempodist ant the novice Vladislav were handcuffed, their hands twisted tightly behind their back. Vladislav was also thrown to the ground and kicked, then thrown onto the floor of a police vehicle. Those who attempted to break away from the police so as to assist their brutalized friends had their hands bent and were shoved into a car.

Thus was accomplished "a gift-giving" to the Moscow Patriarchate by the leadership of the Palestinian Autonomy. Thus was revealed the true image of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate upon whose orders was accomplished this seizure and violence against unarmed monks and sisters.


7July 1997.

P.S. The policemen who evicted us from the monastery insisted that they had written instructions to do this fron Arafat But not one of them could produce this document, because obviously they didn't have it.

Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension Mount of Olives
P.O. Box 19229, Jerusalem 91191, Israel

Dear Friends,

This comes to you from Hebron where we are in a very difficult situation. I am writing for Abbess Juliana as she is unable to take time and she wants you to be aware of what is going on. We had learned (indirectly) that the Moscow Patriarch was coming to the Holy Land and expected to be received in our Ascension Convent and also at the Monastery of the Oak of Mamre in Hebron. On Pentecost Sunday he and his retinue were refused entry at the Convent gate by the Abbess. The reason for this refusal was, of course, that our Synod is not in comunion with the Moscow Patriarchate and also that it is recognized that the latter is determined to take over the few remaining Holy Sites now under the Guardianship of our Synod.

Expecting the next assault would occur in Hebron, Matushka went there. With her were Vladyka Varnava from France and Archimandrite Bartholomew, Chief of our Russian Mission. In the Monastery were only the old Monk George and a young Novice Alexander who took it upon himself to open the gates of the Monastery to the Moscow Patriarch and his entourage. This included 28 automobiles, 3 buses, 5 jeeps, some 50 soldiers and more than 140 other people which formed a jubilant procession. The Church had previously been locked and the key put in the Convent on the Mt. of Olives in anticipation of such a problem. When the soldiers demanded that Mother Juliana give up the key, they refused to believe her explanation and proceeded, with typical communist violence, to break down the heavy doors of the Church and the mob surged in. I understand that some sort of festive ceremony was conducted to welcome this uncanonical Patriarch into a Church which he has no right to enter, over the protests of the legal guardians of this property. To make this incredible trespass still more illogical, it was the Greek Metropolitans Timothy and Vasili who had invited the Moscow Patriarch to enter this Russian Orthodox Monastery and Church! Does this make any sense to you? Apparently we are helpless to prevent such an "ecclesiastical" attack which is surely illegal and also blasphemous in that an Orhtodox prelate dares to violently break into a Church which does not recognize his authority. What must be the effect such behaviour made on all who witnessed it? I am writing on Thursday, June 6/19, and the Moscow people have left Israel. However, the problem continues. Abbess Juliana and the three of us Sisiters remain in this Monastery in order to prevent, or at least, discourage further intrusions and violence. Old monk George remains in his room and is seldom seen. But Novice Alexander continues his un-Christian activities such as inciting others against us and slandering Matushka and making our situation very unsettling. Large groups of Palestinians of quasilegal nature, I think, come and argue with Mother Juliana, urging her to "forget the past, forgive and live in peace with everyone."

Anyone knowing this little Abbess must realize that she is one of the very few authentic Orthodox Christians who would prefer death to violating her conscience by the slightest compromise with the Holy Faith. I personally consider it a priviledge to stand beside her in this unique and dangerous situation. (Just yesterday our telephone line was cut but has since been restored.) I want to emphasize that Matushka bears no hatred or bitterness toward anyone but rather prays for all and trusts in God to bring about His Holy Will. It is not for her or any of us to "forget and forgive" but for God to save these deluded people who seem determined to break open the very doors of hell as violently as the doors of our church were broken on the Day of the Holy Spirit. I hope that the truth of this matter will become known to those who are still loyal to our Holy Orthodox Faith and that others beside her loyal nuns will encourage Matushka and pray for her and all of us. The problem at this moment is for this traitorous Novice Alexander to be removed from this Monastery and replaced by one or more men loyal to our Synod. Once the Monastery has been secured, Matushka and we Sisters will return to Eleon and resume our duties there.

M. Martha, nun

Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
75 East 93rd Street, New York, NY 10128 Tel.: (212) 534-1601


On the morning of Saturday, July 5 (Jerusalem time) the civil and armed forces of the Palestinian Authority arrived at the Russian Holy Trinity Monastery "Abraham's Oak" in Hebron. This Monastery is the property of THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OUTSIDE RUSSIA, an American legal church body, duly incorporated under the laws of the State of New York, U.S.A. headquartered at 75 East 93rd Street, New York City, N.Y. 10128, Telephone: (212) 534-1601.

The armed forces demanded the occupants of our Monastery to vacate the property "within an hour and a half." Upon their refusal, brute force was employed, resulting in the hospitalization of the Abbess as well as bodily injury to other monastics.

One of the occupants, a cleric of our Church, en elderly, sick man, was not permitted to leave and is being forcibly detained. We are unable to communicate with him and are concerned for his welfare.

This action is in flagrant violation of international law and we urgently appeal to our United States officials, both at home and in Israel, to take whatever legal steps necessary to redress this moral outrage and return our property in Hebron to our legal monastic residents.

Archbishop Laurus, Secretary

July 7, 1997

by Haim Shapiro
Jerusalem Post (,

HEBRON (July 9) - In an unprecedented action, the Palestinian Police this weekend broke into the Russian Orthodox Abraham's Oak Monastery in Hebron, evicted the clerics of the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and turned it over to representatives of the Moscow-based church.

The action, a representative of the Russian-based church said yesterday, was the result of a promise made by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II during the latter's visit here last month.

Although Russian Orthodox Church property in pre-1967 Israel has been in the hands of the Moscow-based Church, the New York-based mission had controlled such property in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem since the early 1950s, when the Jordanian government ruled that it was the rightful heir of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the Six Day War, Israel respected the status quo.

According to Archimandrite Bartholomew, head of the New York-based mission, for over a month, Palestinian security forces had visited the monastery almost daily, demanding that the residents leave. On Saturday, he said, the Palestinian Police broke into the living quarters and demanded that the three priests and four monks there gather their belongings and leave. The latter refused to do so. Meanwhile, Bartholomew himself arrived with two nuns.

Bartholomew said representatives of the Russian-based church and the Russian consulate watched as Palestinian policemen dragged the clerics from the building. Women police officers, assisted by their male counterparts, dragged and beat the nuns, he said, adding that one nun had been hospitalized.

According to a press release issued on Monday by Archbishop Laurus, secretary of the New York-based Church Synod of Bishops, the Church is an American legal church body, incorporated under the laws of the state of New York. However, a US consular official in Jerusalem said yesterday that there was no reason for the consulate to interfere in the matter. Ann Casper, deputy head of the consulate's press section, said the consulate had a duty to see that American citizens were treated justly under local laws, but no such protection extended to a church.

Father Mark, an official of the Moscow-based patriarchate, said his church's position was that all Russian Orthodox property in the region had been bought by the Church of Russia and was its property. In addition to the monastery in Hebron, he said, there is a house and small church in Jericho which belong to the Russian Orthodox. That property, he said, is still in the hands of the New York-based Church. He could not say what its future would be.

However, Mark said, Arafat had invited Alexei to come to Hebron on June 16, during the patriarch's visit. At that time, the clergymen in the monastery had not wanted to open it to the patriarch, but eventually did so. Mark acknowledged that representatives of his church had been present at the eviction on Saturday, but denied any Russian diplomatic representative had been at the scene. When asked if the Palestinian Police had used force, he would only say that the eviction had been carried out "properly."

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said yesterday that he was not aware of the incident, but that in principle the PA did not interfere in church affairs.


c. The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) - Yasser Arafat's troops have taken sides in a bitter dispute between rival Russian churches, and a nun said today she was beaten by Palestinian police who evicted her and other clerics from a Hebron church.

The eviction, which took place Saturday, is a victory for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who is trying to recover church properties across the world lost during the communist era to offshoot churches-in-exile known as ``White Russian.''

Alexy heads the world's largest Orthodox church, with an estimated 80 million followers.

Last month Alexy met with Arafat and asked for help recovering church properties here. Among them is a monastery in Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank city of Hebron. On Saturday, several dozen uniformed Palestinian policemen arrived at the compound and ordered five monks and two nuns to leave, said Sister Natalya, one of the nuns. The monks and nuns demanded to see an eviction order, but she said the soldiers refused to show them any documents. Natalya said she was then grabbed by five officers who pushed her against a wall and hit in the stomach. Doctors at Jerusalem's Augusta Victoria Hospital said today that Natalya was treated for bruises all over her body. Another nun, Mother Juliana, was thrown to the floor and struck in the head and stomach, Natalya said. She said Juliana was hospitalized for two days at the French Hospital in Jerusalem. The doctor who treated was not available for comment today.

An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the church raid, saying it violated the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements under which both sides are to respect holy sites. The beatings of the nuns ``are hardly an encouraging indication of the kind of regime the Palestinian Authority is developing into,'' said the aide, David Bar-Illan. Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank security chief whose officers evicted the monks and nuns, denied force was used. ``We didn't touch anybody,'' Rajoub told The Associated Press.

New York-based Russian Orthodox Archbishop Laurus, who opposes Alexy, condemned the action in a statement as ``a flagrant violation of international law.''

Uri Mor, the Israeli official in charge of Christian communities, said ``White'' officials had called him to complain, and he assured them there would be no changes in any areas controlled by Israel, such as east Jerusalem.


From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel

July 9, 1997

HEBRON, West Bank (CNN) -- In a city where violent religious disputes are commonplace, the only Christian property has become the site of one of the more unusual skirmishes.

The Monastery of Abraham's Oak in Hebron, a 130-year-old Russian church has become the centerpiece in a struggle between two factions of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The monastery was recently taken from the control of the so-called White Russian Church, which traces its lineage back to the Czars, to monks and nuns loyal to Moscow's so-called Red Patriarchy, which has been the official Russian church since the Bolshevik revolution 80 years ago. "Absolutely properly, the Palestinian Authority has transferred this land to its legal owners, the Russian church and the Russian people," said Red Russian monk Alexander.

The monastery is in an area controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority, and the monks and nuns who were forced to leave insist that they were badly manhandled. "We were told you have to leave because this man has to come here," says Mother Superior Juliana. "This man was from the red church." "They put me on the floor and they dragged me like a sack of potatoes," a nun said. A monk says that another monk was knocked to the ground, handcuffed and beaten.

Jibril Rijoub, a Palestinian Security Chief, denies force was used. "This is not true," he said. "It did not happen. It will never happen in the future."

Russian Church Patriarch Alexy II attended a meeting recently with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat asking for help in recovering church properties like the Monastery of Abraham's Oak. "As the responsible authority in Hebron and all parts of the West Bank," Rijoub said, "we have the right to do our best to help them."

Russian Orthodox property in Israel is in the hands of the Red Church, while the Czarist White church has properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But with the installation of clerics in Hebron loyal to the Red church, it appears that a coup has taken place and the White Church has lost some valuable ground -- and, in this case, a building.