Oldest Protestant Church In Mideast Sits on Possible Israeli-PA Divide

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East is considering its uncertain future in Jerusalem's Old City as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators talk about how they might divide the area and where new international borders might be drawn.

The picturesque Christ Church compound, located just inside the Jaffa Gate, could end up on either side of the divide.

The walled Old City is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters. Christ Church currently stands just inside the Armenian quarter, on the edge of the Christian quarter.

Among proposals for dividing control of the Old City is one that gives Israel sovereignty over the Jewish and Armenian quarters. The PA will control both the Muslim and Christian sections.

In such a scenario, Christ Church will remain under Israeli control.

Another option is that Israel will not get the Armenian quarter, but will have a corridor through it to connect modern west Jerusalem to the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Here, too, the church may stay under Israel.

Under other arrangements, though, it may end up inside Palestinian controlled territory.

The church was dedicated in 1849. It was originally built by a Christian organization called Churches Ministry Among Jewish People as a chapel for the British Consul - the only way that a Christian institution could legally be built under Ottoman Muslim rule.

But the founders of the church had a broader vision. They saw themselves as spiritual pioneers, praying and working for the full restoration of Israel as foretold by the biblical prophets.

"From the time of the French Revolution, many Christians believed they were entering an important period in world history," said Kelvin Crombie, the church historian, who has been at the center for ten years. "This sparked an interest in British Christians to see the Gospel go to the nations and Israel restored to her land."

Neil Cohen, the current minister of Christ Church, has only been in Jerusalem for a year and a half. But he and his wife, Fran, are keenly aware of the tense situation in their new home.

Cohen declined to comment on the political situation and the various possibilities facing the church and residents of the Old City.

He said no authorities, either Israeli or Palestinian, had approached him about any impending changes and he is not making any preparations for any kind of transfer of authority.

Cohen said he is committed to reconciliation between Jews and Arabs as well as within the church structure itself.

"I base all my thinking about social justice on the Bible," said Cohen. "I'm totally committed to justice and peace and truth. The problem is that truth is subjective."

Cohen sees reconciliation as a process by which two sides maintain their "distinctions" and work towards developing a relationship.

"We're pro-Israel in the broadest sense of the word," he said, but added: "We're not anti-anybody."

The Christ Church compound, which includes a guesthouse, tour company, Christian bookstore, coffee shop, elementary school and church facilities, hosts four separate congregations, each with its own leadership.

The one Cohen leads is Anglican and English-speaking. None are Arabic speaking.

Twenty-eight local Jews and Arabs are employed by the various ministries on the compound, which has been severely hit like the rest of Israel by a slump in tourism due to the three months of violence and terrorism.

Although staff have let their numbers dwindle by not replacing volunteers when they leave and Cohen himself has been sweeping up and helping with chores, he said they were "praising God for his provision."

Crombie, who through the years has filled various roles at Christ Church, is currently working on developing a museum that looks at "the role that Protestant Christianity played in the development of Jerusalem."

However, the church will have to wait and see what happens in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"We're heading into what could arguably be the most turbulent period [for the church]," Cohen said. "[We will be] meeting new challenges - challenges our predecessors 150 years ago would never have dreamed of but challenges we must face and face with courage."