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“You Must Go to Bethany--the Lord Will Keep You Safe” Interview with Archimandrite Roman (Krassovsky), Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission.

Archimandrite Roman (Krassovsky)

This year, Orthodox Christians in Bethany, near Jerusalem, suffered serious tribulations: Palestinian Muslim organizations began to build illegally right on the property of the church. At first they began on the property of a Greek monastery, now on a Russian parcel containing a branch of Gethsemane Convent with a monastic community, girls’ school and orphanage.

The intercession of Patriarch Theophilus of Jerusalem did not meet with success: the first floor of a commercial building on the Greek plot is already operational. The Palestinian authorities could not prevent its construction, though they issued an order prohibiting it. The builders warned: anyone who tried to destroy the building would not live to see it happen. Such threats in the Muslim world are not idle. The Palestinian Authority has a very definite attitude towards Christianity: conversion to Islam is welcomed and rewarded, conversion to Christianity earns death.

Since the Palestinian Authority is not yet an independent Muslim sovereignty, Christians are not massacred by the family, as they are in Syria and Egypt, but illegal seizure of Christian property, be it Greek or Russian, is an ominous phenomenon. Only this year, this began in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Islamists who began to build on the property of a Greek Church were emulated by some who began to build around a Russian parcel by three of its neighbors, one of them building right on Russian-owned land. Not only are they arrogant, but they have financial backing as well.

Without a doubt, the roof of one of these new four-story buildings will soon be crowned with a minaret, most likely on the land of the Russian Bethany Community. The system of to building mosques next to churches is an age-old tradition. We even see this at the tomb of Righteous Lazarus in Bethany: a mosque stands closer to it than either an Orthodox or Catholic church. The mosque was erected in the middle ages, but is constantly renovated. Pilgrims see the same thing in the city of Lydda, near the Church of St George the Victory-Bearer, and in Abu-Goshe near the Benedictine Monastery containing Byzantine frescoes from the 12th century. They saw the need to build mosques everywhere in order to entice local Christians: maybe it is better to worship there?

As part of the response to the seizure of Orthodox land in Bethany, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem of the Church Abroad, and Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany, Overseer of the REM on behalf of its Synod, decided to build a new school building right next to the illegal Muslim structure, to prevent yet further illicit building, which would in fact mean the loss of this property to the Bethany Community for good. Funds are gradually being collected for this construction.

The following is an interview with Archimandrite Roman (Krassovsky), Chief of the REM in Jerusalem of the Russian Church Abroad, taken by Deacon Alexander Zanemonets, teacher of Byzantine and Church history at various universities of the Holy Land, and Coordinator of the Russian Institute of Jerusalem ( zanemonets@yahoo.com ).

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– Fr Roman, why is Bethany important to Christians?

Gethsemane's Bethany presence.
Greek Monastery in Bethany.

– The Bethany of the Gospel is where Lazarus, friend of Christ, lived. The Lord Himself often visited the town, met with His friend and stayed at his home. The Lord also spoke to Lazarus' sisters, Martha and Maria. Their conversation before the resurrection of Lazarus is preserved in the Gospel: it took place right on the site known today as "Russian Bethany." Not far was Lazarus' house. The Lord came after Lazarus died, and raised him thereby "confirming the universal resurrection." This is the reason Bethany is important. Interestingly, even Arab Muslims call this place Lazaria. What happened to Lazarus was the most important event ever to take place here.

– Today, Bethany appears to be completely Muslim. Are there Christians living here?

– There are, but, sadly, their numbers are dwindling. Christians are persecuted here, in recent decades they have been fleeing. Life is difficult, there are troubles with local Muslims, difficulties with Israel: a few blocks from here they are building a wall separating the Palestinian Autonomy from Israel, so that local Christians will find themselves in totally Muslim territory. Islamists persecute Christians in Bethlehem, and throughout the Palestinian Autonomy. Unfortunately, many Christians either convert to Islam or escape. If they have money, they move to America and other Christian nations. If not, they go to Syria or Jordan, though it is dangerous in Syria: Christians there are killed on a daily basis.

– But there are local Christians in Bethany, and monastics who have moved here?

– Yes, there is a Greek monastery right next to us. There is a Catholic church near the tomb of Lazarus.

– There is a Russian presence here, too. How did this come about?

Construction on the Greek monastery property.

– This parcel was obtained for the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in the early 20th century. At first, there was a pilgrim hostel here. Monastic life here began in the 1930's by two Anglican nuns who converted to Orthodoxy. They established a community similar to the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent of Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna in Moscow. They opened a school at the convent, which exists to this day, and a hospital, which gradually became the municipal hospital of Bethany. When the number of nuns grew, they all moved to Gethsemane to be near the magnificent Church of St Mary Magdalene. Last year, the school celebrated its 75th anniversary. There is also a hostel for Christian girls, who live with the nuns. The school and hostel are run by the sisters who are based in Gethsemane. Sister Martha is the senior nun there. The school now has over 400 students, of whom 15 live with the nuns. Unfortunately, most of the students today are Muslims; before the 1970's, only Christian girls were accepted. But since the number of Christians here has nosedived, they decided to accept Muslim girls.

– What is the point of teaching Muslim children in a monastic school?

– The school is rated very highly. If Christians help teach Muslim youth, something good can come from it. This could be expressed in later life. We are not talking about missionary work in the usual sense here: in the Palestinian Autonomy, people are killed for conversion to Christianity by their own relatives. But when people move to Christian countries, or to Israel, that is a different matter.
More and more children attend this school, so that we don't have enough room for everyone. The old building simply cannot accommodate everyone. Even if the school has only 15 Christians, it is worth continuing for their sake. God willing, they will grow up safely in this difficult, dangerous environment. This affects their families. Christian families face great problems here. Most of the students of this school are from poor families.

– They say that relations between the Christian monasteries and Muslims in Bethany are becoming strained.

Entrance to the new Muslim building on the monastery's property.

– Lazaria, the Muslim name for this town, is a place rife with crime. The situation here is dire, there are drug addicts here, people fallen on hard times. There is a high murder rate. Sadly, morality here is very low. The local population here is coarse, and it is they who feel like they are in charge. There is almost no law here. So people brazenly occupy land owned by Christian communities and start building. They began with the Greek monastery, in fact, the biggest one in the Holy Land. There are some wonderful nuns there. In the 20th century, they produced some genuine ascetics.

– Have the Palestinian authorities responded to this lawlessness?

– The Greek Patriarchate sued, but despite the fact that the court ordered the end to such construction, it continued. The police was to have halted it. One time they actually did, and a half-hour later, a new team of workers arrived and continued to build. Two months later the work was finished, and shops and stores have opened. All this on the legal territory of the monastery! The Muslims feel completely in charge. Our neighbors also suddenly began to build without any permits, one meter from the building housing our nuns and children.

They are also completing the construction of a house which they began building on the monastery's territory a few years ago. Now they are building third and fourth floors. A few years ago, its builder seized our land. When we all went to the municipality, they openly told the clerks not to worry, that they would be paid off (they didn't know that we understand Arabic). Now they threaten the nuns that if they sue, then they will take over another part of the monastery grounds. In order not to lose the parcel, Archbishop Mark of Berlin, the Synodal overseer, gave his blessing for the construction of a new school building. Thank God, the Lord has sent us benefactors, and we are beginning construction, though we know the neighbor will make threats.

Lawlessness reigns in Bethany; everyone does whatever they want. The danger for Christian property is especially high here. There are problems in East Jerusalem, too, but not like this. True, there are Muslims on the Mount of Olives living just below the convent who took some of our property. The had dug out part of the mountain which then collapsed, giving them new space. Thank God, their children had just left the area five minutes before the cliff collapsed.

– In light of this, how are your relations with the Muslims?

Undeveloped site on the Russian parcel.
The house being built by Muslims on the Russian plot.

– Very Christian! We do not respond to insults, degradation, disdain. At the same time, we are obligated to protect our property, because it is not just ours, it belongs to Russian Orthodox Christians. We must defend them, but do so legally, with every law at our disposal. Of course, the courts of the Palestinian Autonomy pose a problem: these are not Israeli courts, where Jewish jurisprudence has very high standards, everyone tries to act honestly. That's the way it was historically when Fr Anthony (Grabbe) sued and Israel recognized its error. The same is true today. But whenever you start to litigate, it's like stepping into a swamp.

And legislation is different wherever you go: in West Jerusalem they have their laws, in East Jerusalem they are different: it is supposed to be under Jordanian law, but Israel is obliged to enforce it. Our monastery in Fara is under military law. Here, in Bethany, it is Palestinian law...

– Then should pilgrims visit Bethany now, or should they wait?

– They should absolutely go! Whenever you make a pilgrimage for the sake of the Lord, for the sake of your salvation, the Lord will preserve you. It is worth definitely worth visiting Russian Bethany, even though many pilgrims have never even heard of it. Everyone should visit holy sites and walk on the ground trod upon by the Savior and receive grace.

– Are groups from Russia and Ukraine different from those from the Russian diaspora?

– Most pilgrims from the diaspora are those who had held fast to their faith for decades; as a rule, they know church life well. From Russia we see people who came to the faith relatively recently, which is thrilling, remarkable, but they don't know church life very well, they know little about the church, but they like to collect holy souvenirs. Both types gain a great deal, though... We are here to serve the pilgrims.

– Did you ever visit as a pilgrim?

– Yes, once, in 1984. I had just finished seminary and went on a pilgrimage with Archbishop Laurus, the future metropolitan. We spent three weeks in the Holy Land and then three weeks on Mt Athos. In those days, pilgrimages to the Holy Land were rare: no one came from Russia, and only two or three groups from abroad. Those were major events for the monasteries and nuns. Unfortunately, relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and Church Abroad were bad, so we would not visit Holy Trinity Cathedral or Gorny Convent. Now, thank God, I can even perform divine services there. We did not understand each other then, but now we concelebrate, which is a great joy.

– What is life like for the monastics in Jerusalem? They are in the midst of worldly life...

– A person goes to a monastery to save his soul. The best option is to leave the world, to escape the temptations of daily life which restrain the person from a full spiritual life. But how is this done? A person devotes his will to the will of the Lord and lives in obedience. No matter what his obedience, if he fulfills his duty conscientiously, he will be saved. Here in Jerusalem, our obedience is to serve the pilgrims, to serve the children in the Bethany school. This is very difficult. This is not like living in the wilderness. But here, the monasteries exist for the sake of the mission, for the sake of pilgrims, for the sake of the Holy Land. Talk to the elder nuns of Bethany, Sister Martha, the school's director, to Sister Makrina, an icon-painter and restorer--they are true monastics, though they live among people. We must receive all travelers, as Abraham did. He welcomed strangers, and the Lord blessed him. Our duty is to help people visit and pray at holy sites.

– Fr Roman, what is the role of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in the Holy Land today?

– The Lord preserved these places despite all the troubles of the 20th century, and that is where we live. Why did He will this to be? We don't know, but He must have a reason. For the last 20 years,
rebirth has begun, but it has just only begun. Thank God, people have the opportunity now to visit "Russian Palestine." We must help the Russian people here to renew their faith and their country.

– What does the Russian Mission mean for those who live here?

– We are an obstacle for those of other faiths here. "What are you doing on our land?" ask the heterodox: and our presence has always provoked persecutions. But if we are to be true Christians, they must see that Christians are a special breed. Maybe this will even touch someone's heart.