Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem
The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the Church of Russia to provide support for the increasing number of Russian pilgrims who were performing pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to the Orthodox Christian establishment in the Palestine that was governed by the Ottoman Turks.
While pilgrims had traveled from Russia from the time the Rus were converted to Orthodox Christianity, the number of pilgrims increased greatly in the seventeenth century and to thousands annually in the eighteen century. On July 31, 1847, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church moved the establishment of a Russian Church mission in Jerusalem to provide Russian priests to care for the welfare of the Russian pilgrims and also to help the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem to strengthen Orthodoxy in the area of the Holy Land.
An unofficial mission
As the establishment of a mission in Jerusalem had not been officially negotiated with the authorities of the Ottoman Empire, Archimandrite Porfiry (Uspensky), a noted Church orientalist, arrived in Jerusalem in 1847 as a pilgrim to be the first head of a Russian Church Mission. Archim. Porfiry and his companions established residence at the Monastery of the Archangels in the Old City of Jerusalem. With the outbreak of the Crimean War in October 1853 with Russia at war with the Turks, the mission suspended its work as its members departed Jerusalem in 1854.
The official mission
With the end of the war, emperor Alexander II became concerned about the Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land as, at the time, Russia had neither a consulate, nor any other institution, to protect or provide assistance to the Russian pilgrims. On January 31, 1858, with recognition from the Turkish Sultan, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem was officially established, again at the Monastery of the Archangels, under the leadership of Bishop Kyrill (Naumov) of Melitopol. The purpose of the mission was to provide spiritual supervision for Russian pilgrims and to assist and sponsor charitable and educational work among the Orthodox Arab population of Palestine and Syria. Bp. Kyrill was soon succeeded by Archimandrite Leonid (Kavelin).
Between 1857 and 1860 several plots of land were bought in the Meydan Square with the aim of building a Russian church and a hostel for pilgrims. On August 30, 1860 the foundation for the Church of the Holy Trinity was laid in the center of a large plot that received the name of the Russian Compound. Around the Church of the Holy Trinity housing was built for pilgrims as well as a hospital and the buildings of the Russian Church Mission. On June 28, 1864 the home church of the mission was consecrated, the first Russian church in the Holy Land. The church was designed by the Russian architect M. Epinger, and consecrated to St. Alexandra the Martyr Queen.
In 1865, Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin), a well-known byzantologist and honorary member of many academies and scientific societies, became the chief of the mission in Jerusalem. His name became synonymous with the mission. In 1870, the mission moved from the Monastery of the Archangels to its own property, at the Russian Compound. Archim. Antonin began to buy plots of land all over Palestine where monasteries, churches, and hostels for pilgrims were built. In 1868, he acquired the land in Hebron upon which grew the Oak of Mamre. In 1871, he bought a large plantation of olive trees in the Ein-Karem village near Jerusalem upon which was built the Church of the Icon of the Virgin of Kazan. On this land he also built a hostel for Russian pilgrims.
In 1879, Archim. Antonin bought land on the bank of the Gennesaret lake (Sea of Galilee) upon which he built a hostel for pilgrims, known as the "House with Arches". Through his efforts the Church of the Ascension was built on the Mount of Olives in 1885. In 1868, the tomb of St. Tabitha, with large area of land, was acquired in Jaffa, upon which the Church of St. Peter was built in 1894. The many hostels for pilgrims built by Archim. Antonin on the plots of land of the mission were for a long time called, in his commemoration, "The Hostels of Antonin".
He also spent time on various scientific research projects as well as guided excavations near the Holy Sepulchre that resulted in discovery of the ancient walls of Jerusalem with the Threshold of the Judgment Gate. He also attempted to open Orthodox schools for the local population.
After his repose in 1894 the work of the mission was supervised by Archim. Leonid (Sentsoff) and his successors. Their work included the construction of the Church of the Holy Forefathers in Hebron in 1907 and the Church of St. Elijah in Jaffa in 1913.
World War I and the aftermath
Finding Russia on the opposite side from Turkey during World War I, the staff of the mission and clergy were expelled from Palestine and were only allowed to return from Egypt in 1919 when the British mandate over Palestine was established. In the meantime, all links with the Patriarchate of Moscow were interrupted due to the political changes in Russia. With the return of the clergy and staff, now under Archim. Meletius after Fr. Leonid's repose in 1918, services began again. Despite the lost of most of its funding the mission was able to reopen churches, start a new school for girls in Bethany, establish the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene at Gethsemane, and purchase land along the banks of the Jordan River.
After losing contact with the Patriarchate in Moscow in 1920 the leadership of the mission joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. This arrangement continued until the British mandate over Palestine ended in 1948 with the division of the mandate territory between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With the division of the mandate, the mission's properties in Israel were appropriated by the pro-Soviet Israeli government and transferred to the Soviet-backed Moscow Patriarchate. The Patriarchate established its own mission administration under Archimandrite Leonid (Lobachev) while that in Jordan remained under the Church Abroad.
After the division of the property of the Ecclesiastical Mission the work of the mission continued in an adversarial atmosphere that only began to be healed after the reconciliation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2007 which now administer jointly the properties in Jericho.
The present day administrators of the divided Russian Ecclesiastical Mission are Igumen Tikhon (Amelchenya) who was appointed to lead the ROCOR mission on May 17, 2011 and Archim. Isidore (Minayev) who was appointed to lead the Patriarchal mission in 2009.