The Holy Land—the region where Jesus walked and lived and died—exerts a strange power over the hearts of believers. Readers who have been to Jerusalem and visited its sites may thus feel at least a twinge of sympathy for a group of elderly monks living in that city, who recently made the news in a most unseemly way.
Last Monday, chairs, iron bars, and fists flew on the roof of one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When the dust cleared, seven Ethiopian Orthodox monks and four Egyptian (Coptic) monks had been injured. The fight started when an Egyptian monk decided to move his chair into the shade—technically, argued the Ethiopians, encroaching on the latter’s jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction? Did we miss something?
The argument these monks are making refers to an Ottoman Turkish edict issued by the Sultan in 1752 and reaffirmed in 1852. Still in force today, this edict defines exactly which parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre belong to each of six Christian groups: the Latins (Roman Catholics), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, and Ethiopians.
But let’s start with the basics. The “Holy Sepulchre” is the cave in Jerusalem where Christ is supposed to have been buried and to have risen from the dead. It was discovered—the tradition goes—by Emperor Constantine’s mom Helena, who also picked up some pieces of the True Cross while hanging around the Holy Land. Helena had her son begin work on the first “Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” which was dedicated around 335. From that point the church has gone through many cycles of destruction and rebuilding#151;and since the accession to power of the Ottoman Turks in 1517, many political machinations among Christians trying to gain control over all or part of the edifice.
Why such squabbling over a building? We get a sense of the emotional power this sacred place has had for generations of Christians from some words of the Boniface of Ragusa, a Franciscan who in 1555 was put in charge of rebuilding the tomb itself to strengthen the structure and repair damage caused during five centuries of pilgrimage. As his workers dug down for this major renovation, they uncovered at last the rock of the tomb. This had not been seen since 1009, when the Khalif of Egypt al-Hakim had ordered the destruction of an earlier version of the Church. Boniface wrote:
When, for necessity, we had to remove one of the alabaster slabs which covered the Sepulchre, placed there by Saint Helen in order to be able to celebrate the holy sacrifice of Mass, there appeared to us that ineffable place in which laid for three days the Son of Man. … The place, which had been soaked with the precious blood and with the mixture of ointment with which he was anointed for burial and from where spread to everywhere glowing light as if they were the luminous rays of the sun, was uncovered by us, venerated with devotional moans, with spiritual joy and with tears together with those present (there were in fact not a few Christians, both Western and Eastern), who full of heavenly devotion, some shed tears, other profoundly excited, all were astonished and in prey of a sort of ecstasy.
This moment of ecumenical ecstasy did not last, however, and other firmans extracted from the Turkish authorities through the 17th century raised first the Franciscans, then the Orthodox, and finally the Franciscans again to the status of custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In one such move in 1633, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Theophanius made a bid to wrest control over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Western church by obtaining a firman back-dated to the 7th century, which gave the Patriarch’s church jurisdiction over a number of holy sites connected with the Church. After this document was exposed as a forgery and withdrawn, it was open season on the Church. By 1637, various parts of the holy site had changed hands a half-dozen times, sold each time to the highest bidder by the obliging sultan Murad IV.
In the 18th century, the friars were able to set aside their differences with Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christians long enough to make some further repairs. But on Palm Sunday in 1767, a squabble broke out between the Greeks and the Franciscans, and the Ottoman authorities laid down yet another firman, this time splitting the structure between Western and Eastern Christian groups.
In 1852, in the face of looming conflict between Western, Catholic powers and Eastern powers championed by the Russian Czar, Nicholas, Turkey imposed a truce and reaffirmed the division of the Church established in the 1767 firman, now under the name “Status Quo.” As is usual in history, nobody from 1852 to today been happy with the status quo—but nobody has been able agree on how to change it. So, right off the bat, the Crimean War (1853-56) erupted over this very question of rights over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And so, the other day, elderly monks threw furniture and punches over the crossing of an invisible line on the church’s roof.
The hope of unity seems dim in the face of such strife. But if our divisions are ever to be healed, it can only be as we seek the forgiveness made available by the Event memorialized (whether or not it took place precisely there) in this holy place. As Pope Paul VI prayed on January 4, 1964:
This is the place, where You, O Lord, were accused;
You, the just one, were put to judgment;
You, Son of man, were tormented, crucified and put to death.
You, Son of God, were blasphemed, laughed at and repudiated;
You, the light, were put out;
You, the King, have been exalted on a cross;
You, Life, met with death, and You, dead, rose to life…
We adore You, O Lord Jesus. We came to beat our breasts,
to ask Your forgiveness, to implore your mercy…
because you are our redemption and our hope.
Chris Armstrong is associate editor of Christian History magazine.