Remembering an Easter story and a friend

April 20, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Easter always brings to mind one of my favorite stories -- apart from the story of the Resurrection itself, of course.

It also reminds me of how I met a source who became one of my family's best friends.

The time was Easter week in 1983. The place was Jerusalem, scene of the great event 1,950 years earlier. I was The Sun's Middle East correspondent stationed in Jerusalem, and the pressure was on to come up with an Easter-related story. One could always go to the Holy City and interview pilgrims, or visit the psychiatric clinic that treated visitors to Jerusalem who thought they were the Messiah. But that had been done before -- over and over -- so I was on the lookout for something different.

Then word reached me that a Dominican priest and renowned Biblical scholar at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise believed that pilgrims retracing the Way of the Cross -- following Christ's path to crucifixion -- had been going the wrong way for several hundred years.

There was an Easter story no one else was doing!

Off I went to see Fr. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a tall, bearded Irishman, 48 years old, a Jerusalem resident since 1963.

Of course they've got it wrong, the scholar-priest said, citing John 19:13. Christ, he said, was convicted at the "highest place," which was not the Antonia Tower where the traditional route starts, but the Citadel, where Pontius Pilate would have been.

The Franciscans, who were responsible for pilgrims in the 14th century, planned the route after difficult negotiations with the Muslim authorities, and they wouldn't try to change it again because they'd have to get permission all over again.

This was an interesting enough story, but Father Jerry, as he is known to his wide circle of friends in Jerusalem and around the world, then got onto the subject of the Holy Sepulchre itself. No one argues about where that is: It is the church that marks the traditional locations of Jesus' crucifixion and his burial.

And it is one messed-up place, reflecting a few of the best, but many of the worst, tendencies of rival Christian sects.

Among the most fascinating is that the keepers of the gates of the Holy Sepulchre actually are Muslims. They are from the Nusseibeh and Judeh families, still prominent in Jerusalem, who were chosen by Saladin to be the guardians of the church after he threw out the Christian Crusaders in the 12th century.

At dawn, a member of the Judeh family hands the key to a Nusseibeh who goes to the church at 4 a.m. On a ladder pushed over the wall from inside, he climbs to the keyhole, turns the key and bangs on the door. Thereupon, representatives of the three main patriarchates -- Roman Catholic, Greek and Armenian Orthodox -- push open the door. The ritual is repeated in reverse at 7 p.m. Five sects occupy and jealously guard their parts of the church: Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians and Copts. And as Father Jerry points out in his book, The Holy Land: An Archeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, they do not get along.

In this "central shrine of Christendom," he writes, "One hopes for peace, but the cacophony of warring chants is punctuated by the ring of masons' hammers.

"One desires holiness only to encounter a jealous possessiveness; the six groups of occupants ... watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of man is nowhere more apparent than here, it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate ... ."

To be sure, it is a dark place, and it takes a mighty strong faith to get past the rivalries, the trinketry and the suspicion of each other that the occupants all seem to have.

If Saladin was wise to put the Sepulchre's keys in the hands of prominent Muslims with instructions to keep it safe, the Turkish empire that followed had the good sense to lay out rules for what belonged to whom and what they could do with it.

In the mid-19th century, the so-called "Status Quo" was promulgated by the Turks covering the Christian holy places in Jerusalem, which was part of their empire. Every ruler since then has kept the status quo, including the British from the end of World War I to 1948; the Jordanians from 1948 to 1967 and the Israelis since then.

Four years ago, the Israelis, fearing a disaster at the church if there were a fire, asked the occupants for permission to create an emergency exit. They're still talking about it.

Father Jerry does recall that the six occupants managed to agree to allow President Bill Clinton to visit after the door to the church would have been closed, the only departure from the rigid rules that he could remember. But the visit was canceled after the Christians objected to Clinton's being brought to the church by the Jewish mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert.

Father Jerry became a good friend after that story. He visits us often in Baltimore. I called him in Jerusalem on Friday to ask if the Way of the Cross procession was still going the wrong way.

"Oh, sure," he said. "But who's doing it?"

Not many pilgrims are coming because of the continuing war between the Israelis and Palestinians, he said. The Old City where the Holy Sepulchre stands is an empty, bankrupt place these days. The shopkeepers who would be thriving at this time of year aren't even bothering to open their shops after lunch.

But inside the "central shrine of Christendom" the same occupants go on with their abiding feuds. Who says they aren't just like the world outside?

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