Fathers, Mothers, Brothers and Sisters of the Orthodox Church and other Christian traditions;
As we approach Lazarus Saturday before the start of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, I would ask that this year, you would also commemorate Saint Lazarus Monastery in the modern city of Al-Azaria (Lazarus) in Bethany, East Jerusalem, which is currently undergoing yet another trial of faith and existence.
This monastery is the heart of the Cypriot Orthodox community in the Holy Land; it was established during the early 20th century by Cypriots who wished to venerate thei beloved Lazarus, whose relics are, as we know, in Larnaca. There is a stone associated with the story of the raising of Lazarus that the principal church was built around, and, while somewhat run-down, is still very much an oasis of spirituality in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem that is now very much spoiled by urban development and decay. Once an idyllic neighborhood at the very end of greater Jerusalem before the road to Jericho, the city is now an ugly mess of shabby buildings, auto-repair shops, and junk heaps with abysmal levels of pollution.
In recent months the monastery has been suffering from an encroachment on its limited land by a local Muslim family that claims to have ownership of the land. Al-Azaria has become very much an area in decline since the construction of the Separation Wall between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as the city, even though it is technically considered part of East Jerusalem, was put on the Palestinian side of the wall, and was zoned as an area where the Palestinian Authority has little control, essentially creating a no-man’s land for crime and corruption.
This development has been extremely distressing for the nuns, who live in difficult circumstances and are isolated from the pockets of Christians who live in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As so often happens here in such circumstances, buildings are raised as a precursor to further encroachments on land, and to “prove” ownership of property, the value of which in Jerusalem is now at astronomical levels. This construction will not just impede on the monastic life of the nuns, but also encourage theft of other monastic lands in other parts of the country, The Cypriot government, the Jerusalem patriarchate and some other parties are doing what they can to appeal to the Palestinian and Jordanian officials (as King Hussein has official custodianship of all East Jerusalem Holy Places), but so far little has been done.
This Saturday, your prayers and commemoration will be most appreciated – prayers for the monastery as well as the Cypriots who see this monastery as a place where their struggles in life can be prayed for in the Holy Land, and, of course, the people who are committing this senseless act against an oasis of spiritual light in an increasingly troubled Jerusalem.
There is one among you receiving this letter that gave a beautiful sermon last year about the significance of the raising of Lazarus and its importance to our faith. The sermon spoke of the reality that Lazarus’s resurrection was one of Christ’s great miracles, but that Lazarus himself died once again, but, like all those who have answered Christ’s call to His love and message, will be risen on the day of His Second Coming. We know not that day, and we live with the realization that death will, in all likelihood, take us before that appointed time. Yet may we, like Lazarus resurrected, find it within ourselves to use what time we have left in this world to assist those living in the monastic life and safeguarding the sacred places of the Christian faith through our prayers and support.
Holy Father Lazarus, pray to God for us!