Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Christian infighting in Jerusalem

By Michael Hirst
BBC News

Worshippers and tourists at the site traditionally believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 10 November 2008
Hundreds of thousands come from all over the world to pray in the church

The argument over rights within Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre is as complicated and seemingly intractable as the Middle East conflict itself.

But when the dispute descends into violence, battles are pitched with crucifixes and staves rather than missiles, guns and stones.

Many Christians believe the church in the heart of Jerusalem's old city marks the place of Jesus Christ's death, burial and resurrection. As such, it is arguably Christianity's holiest site.

A church has stood in the area for 1,700 years. Due to the conflicts that Jerusalem has since endured, the building has been partly destroyed, rebuilt and renovated several times.

It is now a labyrinthine complex of chapels and living quarters that is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year.


Scenes of chaos as the church brawl breaks out

The church is grudgingly shared by six claimant communities - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Copt and Ethiopian Orthodox - who have always jealously defended their rights over various parts of the complex.

Rivalry between the groups dates back to the aftermath of the crusades and to the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in the 11th Century.

The Status Quo

So intense is the intra-Christian dispute that the six communities cannot agree which of them should have a key to the site's main door.

Consequently, two Muslim families have been the sole guardians of the 25cm (10 inch) key since they were entrusted with the task by the Muslim ruler Saladin in 1178.

Roman Catholic
Greek Orthodox
Armenian Orthodox
Syrian Orthodox
Egyptian Copt
Ethiopian Orthodox

One family is responsible for unlocking the door each morning and locking it each night, while the other is responsible for its safekeeping at all other times.

In order to settle disputes, the Ottoman sultan issued a 1757 edict (now referred to as the Status Quo agreement) which outlined jurisdiction over Jerusalem's various Christian holy places.

Regarding the Holy Sepulchre, it defined exactly which parts - from chapel, to lamp, to flagstone - of the complex were to be controlled by which denomination.

The ruling forbad any changes in designated religious sites without permission from the ruling government.

It also prohibited any changes whatsoever to designated sacred areas - from building, to structural repairs to cleaning - unless collectively agreed upon by the respective "tenants" from the rival religious communities.

Punishment for a violation of the edict could result in the confiscation of properties overseen by the offending group.

So closely is the ruling followed that it took 17 years of debate before an agreement was reached to paint the church's main dome in 1995.

Acrimonious processions

Monks and friars have been known to exchange blows over who owns a chapel or whose right it is to clean which step.

Religious ceremonies can appear more like singing contests with communities battling to chant the loudest.

Greek Orthodox monks after fighting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, 9 November 2008
Monks inside the church are fiercely protective about their rights

Access to the tomb of Christ - a pale pink kiosk punctuated with portholes and supported by scaffolding that the writer Robert Byron compared to a steam-engine - is particularly fiercely guarded on such occasions.

Processions on holy days regularly become acrimonious, with jostling crowds exacerbating tensions over territorial disputes that periodically descend into in punch-ups.

The smallest slight can end in violence: In 2004, a door to the Roman Catholic chapel was left open during a Greek Orthodox ceremony.

This was perceived by the Greeks to be a sign of disrespect, and a fight broke out which resulted in several arrests.

The intractable nature of the territorial arguments over the site are epitomised by the short wooden ladder that rests on a ledge above the church's main entrance.

It has been there since the 19th Century because rival groups cannot agree who has the right to take it down.

Under the Status Quo agreement, rights to the windows reached by the ladder belong to the Armenians, but the ledge below is controlled by the Greeks.

Roof falling in?

Also emblematic of the territorial dispute's intensity is an ongoing row which, unless resolved, could see the church's roof collapse.

Ethiopians were banished from the church's interior by the sultan two centuries years ago because they could not pay the necessary taxes, and have been living in a monastery on the roof ever since.

Deir as-Sultan monastery on roof of Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The huts of Deir al-Sultan are at the heart of an ongoing row

The monastery, Deir al-Sultan, now comprises two chapels, an open courtyard, service and storage rooms and a series of tiny huts inhabited by Ethiopian monks. It is reminiscent of a basic African village.

All agree the monastery is in poor shape, but a recent Israeli report said it had reached an "emergency state", and was at risk of collapsing through the roof into the church.

Israel has said it will pay for the repairs if the Christians can reach agreement on them, but this seems unlikely, due to a long-running ownership dispute between Ethiopian monks and their Egyptian counterparts.

Over the years, this dispute has been played out on various battlefields, including Israel's highest courts.

So intense has the argument become that when a monk moved a chair out of the sunshine into a shadier area during a heat-wave six years ago, his action was seen as an attempted land-grab.

A fight broke out that left several monks needing hospital treatment.

Such skirmishes may seem nonsensical, but are all too common an occurrence at Christianity's most revered shrine.

Graphic - Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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