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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK

World: Middle East

Holy Sepulchre row

Israel wants to open a second entrance to the 900-year-old building

An 800-year-old tradition of religious co-existence in Jerusalem's old city looks set to come to an end at the insistence of the Israeli authorities.

The ministry of tourism is forcing through a plan to open a second entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites of Christianity, and relieve two Muslim families of custodianship of what is currently the only door.

The Nusaibi and Joudah families have been the sole guardians of the key to the church since they were entrusted with it by the Muslim ruler Salah el-Din (Saladin) in 1178.

[ image: Israel says the church's single entrance is hazardous]
Israel says the church's single entrance is hazardous
It seems that has been the only solution to squabbling between the numerous Christian denominations, which have jostled for space in the building since it was built 900 years ago.

Salah el-Din closed all but one of the 10 entrances to the building, causing what the Israeli authorities now describe as a serious risk to pilgrims in the modern era of mass tourism.

But some observers say the Israelis are exaggerating the risks for territorial purposes, in a city whose sovereignty lies at the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Millennial flood

The Jewish state, which claims sovereignty over Jerusalem's old city after occupying it in 1967, says the new arrangement is necessary in preparation for the 4 million Christian pilgrims it says it expects during next year's millennium celebrations.

Months of negotiations between the authorities and the churches have resulted in an agreement to open a new entrance and transfer custodianship of the key to the churches, the tourism ministry announced this week.

He said the decision on where to put the entrance will be taken by the end of June.

But the ministry could be being over-optimistic, given the long-standing territorial disputes within the building between the churches, which jealously guard every inch of space they occupy.

[ image: Jerusalem's old city contains holy sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews]
Jerusalem's old city contains holy sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews
The Israelis say the second entrance could be via an Ethiopian monastery situated on the roof of the building.

Ethiopian monks have occupied the roof since the 1600s, when they were forced out of the main body of the church for not paying their taxes to the Muslim governors of the city.

But the Ethiopian Patriachate has already expressed unwillingness to cede its quiet little spot without a fight.

Terminating the contact

Meanwhile, the bemused Muslim key-holders have not even been officially informed of the termination of their ancient responsibilities.

Wajeeh Nusaibi continues - as he has done for 20 years - to open and close the building's only door morning and night, before returning the ancient 25 cm (10 inch) long key to his neighbours, the Joudah family, for safekeeping.

He appears unconcerned about the fuss: "I don't pay attention, it's all talk," he told reporters.

The families are not paid for their services. Salah el-Din gave them about 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of land near the West Bank city of Nablus, which provides some income, but much of it has been confiscated by Israel since 1967 to build settlements.

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