In an absolutely blinding example of how religion fosters peace, goodwill and harmony, part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , Jerusalem - revered by Christians around the world as the alleged site of Jesus' Crucifixion and burial, is close to collapse because the six rival Christian denominations who have a presence there cannot agree about the nature and form of essential repair work.
The whole of the church is in need of renovation, but engineers who recently examined the small Deir al-Sultan monastery, perched on the roof of the church, declared it to be extremely dangerous, and quite likely to collapse through the roof. "The structures are full of serious engineering damage that creates safety hazards and endangers the lives of the monks and the visitors. This is an emergency." Said Yigal Bergman, the engineer who led the investigation.
The six denominations concerned - the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian - have all taken joint responsibility for the church since an agreement was drawn up under Ottoman rule in 1757. The Ottoman empire held sway over most of the Middle and Near-East and north Africa for the better part of five hundred years, and was one of the most successful and wealthy empires in history. It could not have prospered for so long in the birthing ground of so many faiths and sects if its rulers had not taken the pragmatic approach of, for the most part, allowing its subjects to believe whatever they liked, so long as they obeyed the law and paid their taxes. I can almost imagine a smile of faintly amused incomprehension touching the lips of the Muslim official sent to broker the deal between the shouting, indignant denominations, all ranting about their particular version of the same nonsense.
The factions apparently constantly vie for the use of space and facilities, and there is distrust, acrimony and occasionally violence between them that goes back centuries. The keys to the church's main entrance have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century; such is the level of distrust between these practitioners of the same faith that they would rather entrust the keys to the most holy shrine of their religion to members of a rival and often hostile faith.
The dispute over the critically endangered monastery dates back a little more recently, to 1970. Coptic monks who had control of the area went to pray in the main church, leaving the monastery empty; Ethiopian monks grabbed their chance and changed the locks! In response, the Copts refused to recognise this quick-thinking, still claiming control of the monastery, and posting a single monk on guard duty at all times. In the particularly hot summer of 2002, the monk on duty moved his chair from its agreed position to a slightly shadier spot. Unfortunately the Ethiopians saw this as a potentially hostile move, and eleven monks required hospital treatment after the ensuing scuffle. This stuff is pure comedy!
Here are four more examples of this childish comedy, shamelessly lifted word-for-word from my newspaper:
In the 19th century, a ladder was placed on a ledge above the main entrance to the church. A priest from another denomination accused the man of trespassing and a row began that has yet to be resolved. The ladder is still there.
In 1995 the church announced that it had reached a decision on how to paint a part of the dome in the central part of the structure - but only after 17 years debate.
In 2004 during Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Greek Orthodox faction and a fight broke out. There were several arrests.
Another fight broke out on Palm Sunday this year when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were attacked by the feuding monks [shades of Monty Python here - "Brothers, Brothers! We should be fighting the common enemy!" "The Judean People's Front!!?" "No no, the Yiddish boys in blue!"] and several people were taken to hospital.
There are calls for the Israeli government to mediate in the dispute. Although it has agreed to fund part of the works, it is, quite understandably, reluctant to get too involved in petty, centuries-old spats between rival denominations.
All of this stuff is great comedy, but on a more serious note, whatever one thinks or feels about the claims made by the faithful about this building and the site on which it stands, it cannot be denied that it is a structure of great cultural and historical significance, that must be saved for the world. If part of this wonderful building, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 326 and maintained ever since, is allowed to collapse because of petty differences in scriptural interpretation, it will be forever to the shame not only of Christians around the world, but also to the Israeli authorities who have ultimate responsibility. Agreement must be reached and repair work begun before this site of incalculable importance falls into complete disrepair, and we're left with the sad spectacle of six ancient factions fighting over a pile of rubble.
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