Is nothing sacred?

Belfast Telegraph, UK
Feb 16 2005

Is nothing sacred?

It’s the holiest of Christian sites – the place where Jesus was
buried. But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has become a
battleground where priests fight and monks stone each other. Victoria
Clark reports on an ungodly turf war.

16 February 2005

Father Athanasius’s Texan drawl sounds as steady as ever down the
phone from Jerusalem but the tale he’s recounting is hair-raising:
“… I refused to close the door to our chapel and then the Greeks,
priests and deacons and acolytes attacked the Israeli police standing
by the door and I was pushed away and fell down, and someone was
kicking me, and more police arrived…”

My Catholic friar friend eventually explains that this latest
explosion of Christian-on-Christian violence in the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem occurred on 27 September last year, on
the Orthodox Feast of the True Cross. Although it happened four
months ago, the authors of the crime – Greek Orthodox churchmen –
have not yet been brought to book.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the sanctified home to the site of
Christ’s crucifixion, as well the tomb he vacated three days later –
is no stranger to violent bloodshed. Christian denominations have
been violently contesting each others’ rights to occupy every last
inch of this holiest of holy places since shortly after the the first
church was built on the site around AD330.

Soon it will be Easter, and the vast 12th-century Crusader church
will host more services, processions and ceremonies than at any other
time of the year. That means more friction and more occasions for
violence. “From Catholic Palm Sunday on 20 March to the Orthodox Holy
Fire ceremony on 23 April is a five-week danger period for us,”
Father Athanasius says. “I’m really scared someone’s going to get

While I was in Jerusalem investigating the contribution the world’s
Christian powers have made to the world’s most intractable conflict,
I witnessed two major fights between churchmen and many minor ones.
The first, on Holy Saturday in 2002, involved the Greek Orthodox
patriarch, Irineos I, and an Armenian priest, who were supposed to be
co-operating in the ritual surrounding the Orthodox “miracle” of the
Holy Fire. Many Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday
before Easter every year God descends in the shape of a flame
spontaneously ignited inside the shrine of Christ’s tomb. On this
occasion, behind the closed doors of the shrine, the two churchmen
fell out over whether tradition demanded that they both “receive” the
Holy Fire at once, or whether the Greek patriarch must take

Impatient, the Armenian improvised his own “holy fire” with the far
from miraculous aid of a cigarette lighter. In a space no bigger than
a couple of telephone boxes, an ungodly tussle ensued. The patriarch
blew out his companion’s candle and somehow lost a shoe. The Armenian
was badly bruised when two Greek monks and then two Israeli police
stormed the shrine.

The second incident, in July that year, landed 11 monks in hospital.
The argument was over whether or not an elderly Egyptian monk should
be permitted to sit under a eucalyptus tree on the Ethiopians’ roof
terrace. “This is an invasion,” a young Ethiopian monk named Solomon
insisted a month before the battle. “Today he sits here on his chair.
Tomorrow, another Copt will come with his chair and perhaps a table.
One day the Egyptians will claim that they have the right to be in
this courtyard, and they will take our monastery!”

The affair escalated from haughty stares at the snoozing Copt to a
battle in which stones and metal railings were deployed. The Copts,
whose monastery overlooks the Ethiopians’ roof terrace, came off

The Israeli authorities responded to the first incident by deploying
a thousand police in the square of the Old City on the morning of the
Holy Fire ceremony of 2003. George Hintlian, a pillar of the city’s
Armenian community, a historian and an expert in matters concerning
the Christian holy places, was expecting another dust-up. He told me
that “we Armenians don’t want a fight, but we can have people ready
to take up strategic positions around the church”.

After the battle of the chair, the Israelis installed CCTV cameras in
the Ethiopians’ roof terrace. For all the Israelis’ patient shuttling
between the two communities in search of a resolution, one had not
been found by Christmas 2003. Two Israeli police were still escorting
the old Copt to his post under the Ethiopians’ tree every morning.

Jerusalem’s rulers, whether they were the Ottoman Turks for 500 years
until 1917, the British of the mandate period until 1948, or the
Israelis thereafter, have often mocked and marvelled at the bitter
feuds of the Christians in their favourite holy place, but all have
tried to limit the causes of friction.

No fewer than six different kinds of Christian enjoy grossly unequal
shares in the use and management of the church. Lording it as
representatives of the oldest and richest church of the Holy Land and
heirs to the glories of Byzantium are the Greek Orthodox, who control
about 40 per cent of the church’s territory and contents. At the
other end of the scale is the tiny community of Ethiopians who
inhabit a cluster of little huts on their rooftop terrace, directly
above the ground that they believe King Solomon gave to their Queen
of Sheba long before Jesus was even born. They can be heard to
complain that “in Western Europe, dogs and cats have a better life
than we have here”.

The Catholic Franciscan community that Father Athanasius belongs to
only won a foothold in the 14th century, after payment of a hefty
bribe, but it is now the second-greatest power. The wealth and
influence acquired as merchants in the Ottoman Empire have elevated
the Armenian Oriental Orthodox to third position, while the Egyptian
Copts make do with one tiny chapel. The Syrian Jacobites, who boast
what Father Athanasius calls the “badly beat-up Chapel of Joseph of
Arimathea”, are almost as underprivileged as the Ethiopians.

The shared shrine of the tomb and the ambulatory encircling it are
the flashpoints. Twice, the protrusion of a Coptic doormat an extra
two inches into the ambulatory has ignited violent argument.

On the occasion of the battle described by Father Athanasius, a
procession was taking place in a shared area of the church, near the
shrine. The 140th head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem,
Patriarch Irineos I, was magnificently robed and holding aloft a
cross containing a relic of the one on which Christ was crucified.
Behind came a small army of hymn-singing churchmen, and then a larger
crowd of Orthodox pilgrims. All was going well until the open door of
the Catholic Franciscans’ side-chapel caught the patriarch’s eye. He
instructed his retinue to see to its closure.

Father Athanasius happened to be standing by the offending door.
Politely, he refused to oblige. Then, about 40 Greek clergy resorted
to force. Ten Israeli police positioned in front of the chapel (they
are on routine duty in the church to prevent precisely such
confrontations) were attacked. In the 21-minute brawl, one of them
lost three teeth. Father Athanasius was knocked to the ground and
kicked. Twenty-five Israeli police were needed to calm passions, and
at least three Greek monks were arrested.

By chance, two video recordings of the procession and its unscripted
battle-scene exist, filmed by locals hoping to sell copies of the
ceremony to Orthodox pilgrims. The Franciscans have decided to
present this evidence to a higher authority; only the Israeli
government can resolve a dispute this serious. “But we are still
waiting for their response,” Father Athanasius says. “Yes, I know
they’ve got more important things to think about right now, but time
is short. I can’t tell you how embarrassing this is for all the Holy
Land churches. In fact, we only want it publicised because Easter is
coming. Something has to be done.’

In the four years I have known him, Father Athanasius has tended to
play down hostilities in the holy places. In the spring of 2000, he
assured me that the three great powers of the church had solved 90
per cent of their disagreements, and it was only the lesser powers
who were still disgracing their faith. “Things only tend to go wrong
these days when, let’s say, the Copts behave like kids reaching for
the candy jar,” he had joked. “You slap them down, but they creep
back and try again.”

We had chuckled over minor ruckuses, like the one about the Greek
Orthodox and Armenians and Catholics competing for the privilege of
repairing a manhole cover that happened to straddle the meeting point
of their three territories. He had told me how jealously the Greeks
guarded their right to clean the church’s lavatories.

But there is no trace of his Texan humour now. A tiny sign that the
Greek Orthodox are not feeling chastened by their autumn misdemeanour
scares him: Father Athanasius strongly suspects that, without
consultation, the Greeks have filled in the cracks in the shared slab
of stone on which Jesus was anointed before burial. “They say they
didn’t do it, that pilgrims did it, but what kind of pilgrim goes
around with a supply of cement and a palette knife?”

For the other side, I telephone a friend, a Greek Orthodox bishop.
Even if he can’t account for the workings of his patriarch’s mind
last September, Bishop Theophanis is a good guide to the prevailing
mood among the city’s Greek Orthodox clergy.

Speaking from his bungalow on the roof terrace of the Greek
patriarchate, next door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he
offers no excuse. “Frankly,” he says, “it was an act of provocation
from our side.” But he cannot resist a dig at the Franciscans. “I
have to tell you that those Catholics can sometimes behave like
Crusaders here and they’re not good at respecting us Orthodox as the
first Christian church of the Holy Land – but still, Irineos was
silly and Athanasius behaved quite correctly.”

Bishop Theophanis warns against judging any church by its personnel:
“The Orthodox Church is much bigger than that. Man is always weak and
silly. The Catholics are great ones for confusing the man and the
institution…” When I protest that lives may be at stake now, that
patriarchs are notoriously difficult to remove and that Irineos is
only 64, Bishop Theophanis heaves a sad sigh: “If he lasts another 20
years, we can forget about a Greek Orthodox patriarchate in

That a usually phlegmatic Texan is raising the alarm about Eastertide
violence, and a proud Greek is contemplating the collapse of the
city’s fifth-century patriarchate, is some indication of the
seriousness of the situation. While the Palestinian issue has hogged
the spotlight, few have focused on the sideshow in the Church of the
Sepulchre. But it is starting to matter a great deal to anyone who
thinks Christianity should retain a stake in the land where it was

There is talk now of resuming the “road map” to peace. Sooner or
later, the burning question of Jerusalem’s status will have to be
raised and attention focused on every inch of that city, as well as
the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis are already seeking ways to
secure as much as possible of the city for themselves ahead of a
final settlement. And who could blame them for asking themselves why
the Greek Orthodox patriarchate continues to own so much prime
property, including the land on which their Knesset is built, and why
the Armenian Quarter accounts for one-sixth of the Old City, and why
the Catholic Franciscan holdings make up another large fraction…

If the guardians of the Christian holy places are turning on each
other more violently than ever, that’s probably because they feel
more threatened and vulnerable today than they have for a century.

‘Holy Fire: the battle for Christ’s tomb’ by Victoria Clark is
published on Friday (Macmillan, £20)