Turf battle at Christian shrine intensifies at Easter

April 19, 1992|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,Foreign Editor

JERUSALEM -- The holy men who guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are in high dudgeon these days.

Easter has that effect on them. For it brings Christians of every conceivable stripe to worship at the sites of Christ's crucifixion and burial, both enshrined in the church that they consider their own domain.

The Greek Orthodox priests and the Armenians have been warier than usual to make sure that some Roman Catholic doesn't tread on their space to celebrate the peace of Christ.

Next weekend it will be the other way around as the Eastern Rite churches celebrate their Easter.

The Ethiopian and the Egyptian Coptic Christians will be squabbling throughout on the roof of the Church that they inhabit.

The Syrian Catholics will jealously guard the tiny piece of the place allocated to their impoverished sect.

The Protestants are not represented by mortals in the church, an advantage, or not, of their late appearance in Christian history.

Six decades ago, while the Holy Land was under British occupation, H. L. Mencken visited and noted that the rival guardians of the Christian shrines had a tendency to back up their dogmatic differences with "a certain amount of eye-gouging, nose-biting and whiskers-yanking."

More than a century ago, when Jerusalem was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Mark Twain visited the Sepulchre and observed that Turkish guards kept an eye on the place because "Christians of different sects will not only quarrel, but fight, also, in this sacred place if allowed to do it."

The same rivalries persist today. Only the occupiers of the city have changed.

Now the Israelis post a riot squad close to the church to make sure that things don't get out of hand.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Dominican priest and biblical scholar who has spent the last 30 years exploring the Holy Sepulchre, mocks the behavior of its guardians.

"Because of the crowding and inability to follow a plan you can have rioting," Father Murphy-O'Connor says.

And when the going gets rough in the church, anything can be turned into a weapon: a cross, a walking stick or a candlestick.

"When people start swinging these candlesticks at each other, homicide is eminently possible," the Irish-born priest-scholar says with a marvelous glint in his eye.

They can't even agree who should open the door of the church every morning, he says.

As a result, it takes four people to do that every day at 4 a.m.: A Muslim who unlatches the enormous door from outside, and three priests -- representatives of the Latin, Greek and Armenian rites -- who each lay their hands on the door simultaneously and draw it open from the inside.

The priests are not there to help each other. They engage in the simultaneous act purely out of fear that if one fails to appear at the allocated time, his sect will forever lose the right to be there at all.

Why is a Muslim involved in this exercise? Because a little more than 800 years ago when the Muslim warrior Saladin conquered Jerusalem and drove out the crusaders, he showed a little respect for the Christian shrine and designated a member of the Muslim Nusseibeh family to keep an eye on it. The present keeper is said to be a direct descendant.

Whatever his motivation, Saladin was kinder to the Church that encloses Calvary and the tomb of Christ than those who came before and later.

The church was first erected in the 4th century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, whose mother, Helena, claimed to have discovered pieces of the original cross at the site during an elaborate search and pilgrimage. This explains why the Greeks are so covetous of their pre-eminence in the church. The Persians sacked and burned the shrine in the year 614.

Almost four centuries later, Hakim, the third Fatimid caliph, really wrecked the place, picking and shoveling the tomb of Christ to smithereens.

What stands today is essentially what was built by the crusaders from the time they captured the city in 1099. Godfrey de Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first crusader kings of Jerusalem, were buried there.

But the Greeks, resentful of that Latin era, removed the remains in 1809.

The church has also been struck by natural disasters, a devastating fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927.

Historical distractions and the abiding enmities over turf in the church have interfered with fixing up the place to make it look as splendid as it ought to be, Father Murphy-O'Connor says.

After the fire in 1808, the church lay in a state of collapse because most of the European countries that might have provided reconstruction funds were "preoccupied by a fellow named Napoleon who was rampaging his way across Europe."

From the earthquake in 1927 it took more than three decades for the Latins, the Greeks and the Armenians -- the pre-eminent sects in the church -- to agree on who would repair what because under the rules whoever fixes something has some claim to ownership.

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