MIDDLE EAST: New life for West Jerusalem church

St. Paul's to re-open after 62 years
July 28, 2010

In West Jerusalem, an Anglican church built in 1874 and shuttered for 62 years is finding new life as "a house of God for all, a center for bringing people together."

"This is our hope and our vision," said Bishop Suheil Dawani, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, in a recent interview about the restoration and upcoming re-dedication of St. Paul's Church as "a place of reconciliation and love for all people."

Speaking from his office adjoining St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, Dawani said "we as a diocese are keen for St. Paul's to be a continuation of what we do here," citing the unique blend of hospitality, prayer and education offered on the cathedral close, also home to St. George's College.

"We as a diocese will use St. Paul's as a place to invite other denominations to come and hold services," said Dawani, who envisions welcoming fellow church leaders to preside regularly at services there, perhaps on a rotating, monthly basis as a living symbol of Christian cooperation.

For the celebration to mark St. Paul's re-opening -- an event yet to be scheduled for this autumn when renovations are complete -- Dawani said he "would like to welcome heads of the churches, and parishioners from the West Bank and Israel" for a festive liturgy and reception.

Requests to use St. Paul's have been received from various groups in addition to ongoing ties with the local Finnish Christian community, Dawani said. New cross-cultural relationships would recall an earlier era of ministry in the parish and its strikingly spare Mediterranean-style sanctuary.

"It is the mother church of many Anglicans in Jerusalem," Dawani said of St. Paul's Church, which was consecrated in 1874 for the Arabic-speaking congregation of Christ Church. Christ Church is located in the Old City and was consecrated in 1849.

"Unfortunately the 1948 war had a great impact on the community of St. Paul's," said Dawani. "Many families -- a number of them very well-to-do -- left Jerusalem, some for Lebanon, some for London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and others for America."

At that time, the border created between Jordan and Israel made access to St. Paul's from East Jerusalem increasingly difficult, and the Arabic-speaking congregation relocated, first to Christ Church, and then formally to St. George's Cathedral in 1953.

The congregation continued in ministry as other events unfolded, ranging from the 1957 formation of the Anglican Archbishopric of Jerusalem to the 1967 Six Day War. The jurisdiction became the forerunner of the current autonomous Province of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, formed in 1976 as part of the Anglican Communion with four dioceses now based in Jerusalem, Cyprus, Egypt, and Iran.

In 1997, while Dawani was serving as a priest in Jerusalem, he began work to restore St. Paul's -- closed since 1948, the year in which the State of Israel was formed and the British Mandate ended. By 1999, repairs to the roof of St. Paul's were completed, Dawani said, noting that work continued through 2004 when he transferred to new parish ministry in Ramallah.

In 2007, when Dawani was elected diocesan bishop, he pledged that St. Paul's "must be revived and fully renovated," he said. He then started new phases of restoration that would repair damage including the effects of arson. The bishop has continued supervising the project personally.

This summer, plastering and painting continues, as does the repositioning -- just above and behind the altar -- of a three-panel stone reredos featuring biblical texts etched in Arabic. While the central verse conveys Jesus' restatement of the great commandment to love God and one's neighbor (Luke 10:27), the left panel recalls Paul and Silas' imprisonment (Acts 16:37); and the right, Christ's call to "ask and you shall be given ... knock and door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7).

Dawani said that contributions in honor of the new St. Paul's ecumenical ministry are welcomed by the diocese, which includes 27 congregations in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel and supports 35 institutions, including hospitals, clinics, schools, vocational training programs and institutions for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly.

The work at St. Paul's is among other diocesan building projects that currently include the new St. Mary's Church to be dedicated August 5 in Irbid, near Amman. Also in Jordan, at the historic baptismal site location, land given by King Abdullah II was blessed Feb. 20, 2010 by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for construction of a new church and retreat center where all in the Anglican Communion will "feel this is their place," Dawani says.

Likewise, building cross-cultural understanding and harmony is also a diocesan priority, the bishop added, noting his own respectful awareness that St. Paul's Church is located within one of the most observant orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Further information about St. Paul's Church, including an announcement of the re-dedication date, will be posted on the diocesan website.