Eastern Orthodox rift mars Easter celebration at shrine in Jerusalem

Fracas between priests from rival sects typical at site tied to Jesus' burial

April 27, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - With a raucous crowd jammed shoulder to shoulder yesterday inside the fortress-like Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a parade of Greek and Armenian Orthodox clergy slowly walked to the tomb of Jesus.

And that's where the trouble began.

Priests from the competing sects pushed and shoved each other as part of an ancient dispute over who would emerge first with the flame they believe miraculously descends from heaven during the Easter Ceremony of the Holy Fire, marked this weekend by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Israeli riot police quelled the small disturbance, which had threatened to explode in violence yesterday.

Neither side could come to terms, but the priests did promise to avoid coming to blows - as happened between the clergy and worshipers last year - after Israeli officials threatened to limit the number of participants to just a few hundred. In the end, police let 6,000 into the stone church built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was crucified and buried.

Inside, police carrying clubs and guns set up metal barricades to segregate the crowds, which surged forward to touch or photograph the patriarchs and their entourages as they walked three times around the tomb.

Young Greek and Armenian men climbed onto each other's shoulders, scaled scaffolding on the aedicule, or shrine over the tomb, flew flags, beat drums and shouted at each other in biblical verse as armed Jewish police stood between them inside Christianity's holiest shrine.

The biggest fracas occurred at the tomb's entrance, and with order quickly restored, the two patriarchs entered the tomb and retrieved the fire. Then, as centuries of protocol dictate, the Greek patriarch emerged first with the flame.

He raced toward the exit as throngs of frenzied worshipers mobbed him and dipped their candles into the sacred fire, which was quickly spread to thousands of candles. Foot-high flames leapt into the air, filling the church with smoke and singeing hair and garments amid a deafening sound of church bells and screams of joy.

A Greek nun stood on a platform between two marble pillars, waved two candles, then passed her hand through the dancing flames in a show of faith. Police with small canisters sprayed water over the crowd to control the burning.

Visitor from Greece

Nicholas Koukas came from Athens, Greece, for yesterday's ceremony, and the police restrictions nearly prevented him from getting inside. But he quickly made a badge that said "Greek delegation" and that looked official enough to get him a coveted spot near the tomb.

"I was very afraid I wouldn't make it," Koukas said. "I came all the way here just for this. I came for the light of Christ. If you believe, you will see the fire."

Koukas said he did not want to get involved with the dispute with the Armenians. "I believe that all Christians are one," he said. "It's very sad to see this happen." But, he quickly added, "the light can only appear when the Greek patriarch goes inside. It comes for nobody else."

The Easter dispute is part of the daily friction that governs this church, erected in the fourth century by Constantine, the Byzantine emperor, and rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 11th century. Six Christian sects live in a labyrinth of stacked rooms and darkened grottos, jealously guarding everything from Mass times to who can clean what under the belief that merely sweeping a hallway establishes ownership.

Last summer, Ethiopian and Egyptian monks brawled after one moved a chair to a shady spot on the roof, threatening another's domain and requiring Israeli police to stand guard each time members of the two groups wanted to sit in the same place.

Root of dispute

The latest argument centers on who can come out of the tomb first with the fire. The document that dictates protocol says the Greek patriarch is always first. But the Armenians have been demanding an equal role in the ceremony over the past several years.

With both sides threatening violence, Israeli authorities tried to mediate. Natan Sharansky, a Cabinet minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs, led the way. "As the local authority, I think we have the right to impose an agreement," he told Israeli Radio last week. "But I don't think it's right for the Jewish state to do so."

Sharansky said that violence could be deadly with a large crowd in an ancient building that has only one exit, especially when everyone is carrying lighted candles and passing them in what can best be described as a mob scene.

As the Orthodox groups performed their ceremonies, Roman Catholic priests, most of them Franciscans who share the building, stood quietly off to the side and looked on in bemusement, if not irritation, having celebrated their Easter last week.

Armenian Bishop Aris Shirvanian said the ceremony went off as expected, though he noted "a bit of a commotion" at the start between younger priests, who were quickly instructed to behave.

"I think the police did the best they could do," he said, noting that their presence - there were 2,000 in and around the church - was stronger than in recent years. "Basically, we all agreed not to fight."

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