It is time for Orthodox churches to confess on antisemitism
V EVERY YEAR on November 29, a special service takes places in a packed Jacob’s Well Orthodox church in the West Bank.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem leads the ceremony which marks the saint’s day of a New Martyr — Saint Philoumenos of Jacob’s Well.
Pilgrims who gather in the church would tell you that the martyr, who was a monk in the monastery, was brutally tortured to death in a “ritualistic” manner by local Jews. Brochures at the church tell the same story.
In the last 40 years, accounts of the ritual murder of the Cypriot monk Philoumenos Hasapis have spread worldwide. In 2009, after the Patriarch glorified the monk as a saint and his relics were moved to the newly renovated church, they became the subject of international pilgrimage.
Philoumenos was killed in 1979 by a ruthless lone serial killer who had murdered Jews and non-Jews across Israel. He suffered from powerful hallucinations which he described in his police interrogation. A psychiatric examination led to his forced hospitalisation. Vitally, recently published research, which I co-authored, showed that there is no factual basis for allegedly “ritualistic” motifs.
But the myth of a contemporary ritual murder spread rapidly and found fertile soil in the minds of passionate believers, who from a young age were exposed to conspiracies about Jews consuming Christian blood for Passover. The believers are stimulated by certain clergy interested in promoting the narrative of Philoumenos’s ritual murder, or at least not objecting to its spread.
“One who wants to find the truth knows where to find it,” a highranking official in the Holy Land’s Orthodox Church said after he was presented the impact of this myth. However, the phenomenon is not
The well is a pilgrimage site for murder victim Philoumenos Hasapis who was declared a saint in 2009
Jacob’s Well is housed inside the Greek Orthodox monastery of Bir Ya’qub
confined to the Holy Land. Orthodox leaders around the globe preach about this “ritual murder”. The Cypriot Metropolitan of Morphou even described it as a step by Zionists in their so-said task to take over the world with the antichrist.
Church relations with the Jewish people have long been a sensitive topic. Jews were accused of killing Jesus and Replacement Theology taught that the Church replaced Jews as the people of God, thus Judaism is fated to disappear.
The Catholic Church was behind the cruellest atrocities: Crusaders massacred Jews in Europe, the first blood libels emerged in Catholic realms in the 12th century, and the terrible chapters continued with the expulsion of Jews from Catholic Spain and its notorious Inquisition.
But, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted a document which surprised the Christian world — the Nostra Aetate. The Vatican resolved that “what happened in His passion
[Jesus’ crucifixion] cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”.
Replacement Theology was denounced. The Catholic Church declared that the people of the Old Testament are “the root of that wellcultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles” of the present church. Since then, the Catholic Church, as a worldwide religious institution, advanced educational initiatives amongst its believers. While the past cannot be changed, Nostra Aetate paved the way to changing the future.
In contrast, nothing similar has occurred in the Orthodox churches. The blood libel accusations emerged later in the East, but have continued into modern times. Cults of past martyr-saints, allegedly victims of Jewish ritual murders, have never been suppressed.
In the post-communist era, such cults have been revived. Patriarch Kirill of Russia worshipped the relics of a child saint, Gabriel of Bialystok, in front of huge gathering in 2012. In 2017, the Russian church established a committee of inquiry into the question of whether the last Tsar was a victim of a ritual murder. The veneration of Philoumenos constitutes another example.
In December 2017, an interreligious dialogue between representatives of Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, took place in Jerusalem. The myth of Saint Philoumenos was discussed, but no practical measures were taken.
It is true that during the Holocaust there were Orthodox Church institutions which contributed to rescuing Jews, such as in Bulgaria). Nevertheless, no comparable move to the Catholic Nostra Aetate has been adopted by any of the Orthodox churches, nor by the Great PanOrthodox Council of 2016.
In May 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew participated in the March of the Living. He said at the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau: “The future can be no better than the past, if people from all cultures, religions and political thought do not learn well the lessons of the Shoah”.
But the Orthodox Church must recall more than the Holocaust. Looking on the revival of medievalstyle accusations, the world must demand the Orthodox churches publicly condemn antisemitism in all shapes, including “at home”.
It is time. Perhaps the first step can be taken at Jacob’s Well Orthodox Church on November 29.
The Russian church asked if the Tsar was a victim of ritual murder
Dr David Gurevich is a post-doctoral scholar at the Department of General History in Bar-Ilan University. His full essay is available on fathomjournal.org
The sun sets over the Bir Ya’qub monastery near Nablus, in the West Bank
(pictured right in the 1970s),