Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Clayton Goodgame

PhD Candidate in Anthropology, London School of Economics

Custodians of Descent: The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Family Waqf 

This paper explores an ongoing crisis within the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem over Church property. The Orthodox Church, which is one of the largest landowners in Jerusalem, is divided between a hierarchy composed of Greek monks and a lay population made up of Palestinians. The crisis revolves around the hierarchy’s repeated sale and lease of valuable properties to the Israeli state, private developers, and settler organizations. The Church often claims it is being coerced into selling land, but it also distinguishes between religious property, which is held in trust, and private property (mulk), which is not. The Palestinian laity, on the other hand, consider all Church land to be unalienable – regardless of its specific legal status – because the Church is the legal and theological representative of the Palestinian Christian community. As such, since the recent land deals were exposed, the laity have launched major protests across the country demanding greater involvement in Church affairs. 

This paper seeks to address this situation by taking a step back from still-unfolding political events to ask a broader question about the nature of Church property in occupied territory and the relationship between ownership and custodianship that emerges in such contexts. It thus focuses not on specific land deals but on the type of property relations that exist between the Greek hierarchy and the Palestinian laity and how these relations have changed over time. 

The discussion is divided into ethnographic and historical sections. The ethnography describes how, under pressure from Israeli settler organizations, contemporary Palestinians reaching the extinction of their family line sometimes entrust domestic property to the Church in order to protect it for future generations of Palestinians. Families worry that if they allow extended relatives, particularly those living abroad, to inherit their property the latter will sell it, putting it at risk of falling into the hands of settlers who surreptitiously bid on property through intermediaries. These families consider the Church, as an international institution, to be more capable of fending off such bids than they are themselves. However, in the process of donating the property, those future generations of Palestinians who move into Church-owned homes become custodians rather than owners, often without the ability to transmit residency rights to their children. 

Most studies of monastic authority focus on the power created by the social distance of monks who separate themselves from secular life. Equally important, however, is the fact that monasteries are themselves kinship organizations, and it is by re-organizing ties with society rather than severing them that they maintain their authority. The historical section attempts to show how the contemporary relationship between monastic owners and lay custodians resulted in part from legal changes that occurred in Ottoman period. Drawing on the work of historians and legal scholars, it describes how Ottoman jurists adapted Islamic law concerning family endowments (awqaf) to define monastic organizations as legal families. This allowed Greek monks to inherit property from their (spiritual) brothers while preventing them from transmitting it to anyone else, including lay Christians. 

Framing this practice in the anthropology of kinship, I argue that the Greek hierarchy has maintained control over Church property by creating a closed system of inheritance. Like a system of perfect endogamy, in which marriage only occurs within the descent group, the hierarchy was able to use Church law and Orthodox ritual to produce hereditary sons without parents and to inherit Palestinian property during difficult times without any promise of return. This became especially important after 1948, when Palestinian refugees fled to the Old City of Jerusalem and their livelihoods became ever more closely tied to Church institutions. The paper thus demonstrates the significance of hereditary custodianship to contemporary Palestinian Christians and how the authority of the Church hierarchy is enacted by withholding it from them. 

Clayton Goodgame is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE). His dissertation, based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Jerusalem, explores the religious and political dynamics of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In particular, it seeks to reappraise a longstanding conflict between the Greek clergy and the Palestinian laity over Church property. It provides a broad analysis of the religious, economic, and domestic relations of the two parties and then brings the resulting observations to bear on the recently revitalized Palestinian movement to democratize the Church.