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Friday, September 5, 2014

The Imperial Russian Orthodox-Palestine Society


On September 3, 2014 in Galilee a branch of the “Imperial Russian Orthodox-Palestinian Society,” was officially launched at the Orthodox Center in Nazareth which, despite the change in circumstances, keeps almost intact its old name. This is an important step in the gradual return to strength of the SIORP in the Holy Land.
A little history

The Society was recognized by the Ottomans in 1857, confirmed by the Tsar and turned into Imperial Orthodox Combined Society in 1882, frozen in 1914 (because of war) and abolished in 1917. During these years it was able to build an incredible number of religious, hospital and school buildings in the Holy Land (around 70 – on average, two structures per year!). The first school was that of Mujeidel built in 1882, followed by many others in Kafr Yassif, Rameh, Cana, etc. But most important were the Moscow schools of Nazareth and Beit Jala designed to train school teachers, while the major center was the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Some of these structures, meanwhile, were confiscated or nationalized, and were bought by Israel in 1964 at the ridiculous price of $3.5 million (a sale of oranges, decried critics).

With the fall of communism, SIORP resurrected and, from 2008, largely due to the visits of President Putin and Patriarch Kyrillos to the country, ‘cooperation’ agreements were signed separately with Israel and Palestine from whom many properties would be returned to the Society, based on their current status, and further structures were built.

A Return of Caesaropapism?

Many observers have seen in this mix the religious activism and political involvement of Putin in the Russian Church, a return to the Caesaropapism of the Tsars, and they note a strange coincidence: in 1857 the SIORP was recognized after the Crimean War, today it is re-implanted and strengthened in the Holy Land, following the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula. The creation of the Nazareth branch of the SIORP fits exactly into this groove of the recovery of the ancient Russian presence and activity.

Participants and recognitions

For this event, an official Russian delegation arrived in Nazareth led by Mr. Sergei Stepashin, president of the SIORP, former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation; Mr. Alexey Sentebov, Consul General of the Russian Federation in Haifa; Bishop Theophanos, representative of the Moscow Patriarchate; and Mr. Amin Safieh, Honorary Russian Consul, who was also the presenter of the session.

Attending the ceremony were Bishop Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel; Orthodox bishop of Nazareth, K.Kyriakos; Melkite Exarch, Fawzy Khoury; Archimandrite E. Shoufani, Melkite priest, and Fr. Warwar Orthodox priest; Fr. Atallah Ihab Orthodox priest of Kafr Yassif; Mrs. Afaf Touma, President Orthodox parish Committee of Nazareth and its Council; a representative of the municipality; and a hundred Orthodox, Latin and Melkite notables of Galilee, especially Nazareth.

The ceremony concentrated around a few speeches. The speakers were Prof. Hanna Abu Hanna, author of a recent publication in Arabic, “The beginnings of the Palestinian renaissance”, where much of it is devoted to the activities of the SIORP in Palestine; the Russian Archimandrite Théophanos and Mrs. Afaf Touma, the Consul General and especially the President of the Society.
Three certificates of appreciation were granted by the President to Prof. Hanna Abu Hanna, Mr. Wael Jahashan and Fr. Milithos (Yhab) Atallah, in recognition of the merits of their collaboration in this field.
The resounding speech by President Sergei Stepashin

He does not mince his words; he was very open, direct and basically says:

“The Holy Land has always been important for the Russian Orthodox. We want to try to recover as much as possible our properties, and especially to resume our school activities. If before we help the Orthodox, now we want to help all Christians in the Holy Land and the Middle East and the entire population.

I went to Rome to meet the Pope Francis, who blessed the renewed efforts of the Society and we are agreed on the need for a common commitment to peace and for the good of the Church in the Middle East. We have already recovered some properties; we built a new center in Jericho, a school in Bethlehem, and another school in Kafr Yassif. We will build a new hospital in the area of Bethlehem. Next year, President Vladimir Putin will come on official visit to Israel and Palestine and will inaugurate some of the new structures.

In recent years, we raised many millions of dollars from the Russian population, not the government, to help the Syrian people and we will do the same now and in the future for Gaza. As the Imperial Russian Orthodox-Palestinian Society, we are for universal peace and especially in the Middle East and the Holy Land. I am a military professional with the rank of Colonel-General, I was Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and now, as president of the SIORP, I’m a big proponent of the cause of peace.”

Some wondered why the Orthodox Bishop did not speak and why the issue of the construction of the new orthodox school of Nazareth, a very urgent subject at present, was not even mentioned.

From our correspondent in Galilee. Photos A.K.


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