International Fellowship of Christians and Jews
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History of IsraelByzantine Empire

In the year 313 BCE, the emperor Constantine I adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, and moved the capital to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople, effectively ushering in the new, Byzantine age of the Roman Empire. Byzantine reign of the Holy Land lasted until the middle of the 7th century, although the empire itself lasted much longer, until declining in the 11th century and ultimately falling to the Ottomans in the 15th.

The Holy Land became a predominately Christian country. At the behest of Emperor Constantine, many churches, such as the Church of Annunciation, were erected over Christian holy sites. Monasteries sprung up all over the country.

At the beginning of the Byzantine reign, Jews were allowed to practice their religion. Circumcisions were permitted, the Jewish Sabbath and festivals were recognized, synagogues could not be violated, and Jewish courts had jurisdiction in legal cases. In the year 351, though, the Jews, persecuted under the Roman emperor, rebelled. The rebellion was quickly and decisively quashed, destroying the towns of Sepphoris, Tiberias, and others. The Jews, while for the most part tolerated in other parts of the empire to varying degrees, lost their autonomy in the Holy Land, and were forbidden from entering Jerusalem, except once a year, on Tisha B'Av, to mourn the destruction of their Temple.

In the beginning of the 5th century, the situation of relative tolerance throughout the empire began to change, as well. Jews were not allowed to hold civil or military offices—except for that of a tax collector. Jews could not own slaves, and while they were allowed to adhere to their religion, they could not enhance it. Construction of new synagogues was forbidden, although archaeological evidence throughout Israel tells us that this ban was regularly circumvented.

In the 6th century, the emperor Justinian tightened control over the Jews, further decreasing their status. The Samaritans, adherents of the religion of the ancient Israelites, pre-Babylonian exile, also lived in the Holy Land at this time, but they, too, were persecuted, and after an attempted revolution, were virtually wiped out.

Following the reign of Justinian, the restrictions on Jews eased and they were once again tolerated by the ruling class. In the 7th century, the Muslims began their conquest of the Holy Land, setting the stage for the Crusades, beginning in 1095. During the Crusades, Jews were persecuted, often forced to choose between conversion and death; many chose suicide. Later emperors in the crumbling Byzantine empire officially sanctioned persecution of Jews and confiscation of their belongings.

Even during this difficult period, Jewish learning and writing proliferated. During the earliest years of the Byzantine rule, for example, the Jewish calendar was organized by Hillel—the same Jewish calendar used today by Jews worldwide—and the Jerusalem Talmud was completed.