On the one hand, this is a very sad tale of disunity and damage to precious monuments. On the other, it’s a hilarious tale of stubborn monks getting into fisticuffs over the placement of a chair.
A long-running row over the rights to a rooftop section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could bring the entire structure tumbling down, destroying Christendom’s holiest site.
While renovations are needed across the church, the small Deir al-Sultan monastery on its roof has reached an “emergency state”, according to engineers who completed an evaluation this month.
The Times has learnt that in 2004 the two chapels and twenty-six tiny rooms that comprise the monastery were pronounced in dire need of reinforcement. They have since deteriorated to the point where engineers now fear that they will crash through the roof and into the church, venerated by millions of Christians as the site of the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
The church has been vigilantly managed by six competing and often fractious Christian denominations — Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian — since an agreement reached under Ottoman law in 1757.
Rival denominations often battle for access or space and the congregation at the annual Easter service sometimes resembles the terraces of a boisterous football match. The keys to the main entrance of the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century because the Christians do not trust one another.
The dispute over the Deir al-Sultan monastery is a more recent phenomenon dating back to Easter 1970. When the Coptic monks, who had controlled the area, went to pray in the main church and left the rooftop unattended, Ethiopian monks seized the opportunity to change the locks at the entrances before the Copts returned.
Relations between the two groups have remained tense ever since, with the Coptic Church refusing to relinquish its claim to the monastery and posting a single monk there at all times. In the midst of a blistering heatwave in the summer of 2002, the Coptic monk on duty moved his chair from its agreed spot to a shadier corner. The move was taken as a hostile manoeuvre by the Ethiopians and 11 monks needed hospital treatment after the ensuing fracas.
The rest of the church factions have been unable to mediate between the two groups, even in the case of minor repairs or renovations to the rooftop.
News courtesy of the Times Online.
The stairway to Golgotha, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Next time you find yourself thinking the Crusades were the product sheer political opportunism, think about those eleven injured monks. People are still fighting over these places, two thousand years later. The politics come and go, but the Holy Land means something, in ways I can’t get my white-wash protestant mind around.