An agreement announced last month by the three churches guarding the Holy Sepulchre to undertake extensive repairs to its drains, electricity and infrastructure marks the first time in centuries that the Christians in Jerusalem have agreed on how to protect the site where Christ was buried.
The multi-million dollar restoration will be the second phase of urgent efforts to prevent the Holy Sepulchre from collapse. Earthquakes, throngs of pilgrims, candle soot, grime and the wear and tear of centuries had left the ancient marble structure dirty and dangerously unsafe. The Israeli authorities briefly closed the entire complex in 2015, declaring it unsafe, and threatened to step in to make compulsory repairs.
The marble shrine, known as the Edicule and extensively rebuilt in Ottoman times, is part of the common areas of the Holy Sepulchre complex. For centuries it has been controlled by the three main churches in Jerusalem: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Latins – the ancient name for the Roman Catholic Church. So fierce was their rivalry and so jealous were they of their privileges, however, that they rarely agreed on any change or repair, however small. As a result, after a severe earthquake in 1927, the entire building became unsafe and for years was propped up by emergency scaffolding erected by the British during their mandate rule in Palestine.
Arguments over the protection of the Holy Sepulchre also played a big role in the start of the Crimean War, when Moscow insisted it had the right to defend the Christian heritage in Jerusalem. The tsar demanded the right to be declared the protector of the holy places, instead of the key being handed to the French as proposed by the Sultan of the Ottoman empire.
The agreement by the three churches to make major repairs, now completed, and share the cost is part of a few-found unity among all churches in Jerusalem. This is a far cry from only 20 years ago, when pilgrims used to arrive at the Holy Sepulchre to find monks from different factions fighting each other with broomsticks for having “trespassed” in sweeping the floor area of a rival church. Indeed, in 1810 so bitter was the rivalry that when workmen employed by the Greek Church began to repair the Edicule, armed Armenian monks opened fire on them from a nearby gallery, killing eight of the workers.
The eagerness of all churches now to cooperate has also been forced on them by common threats: the huge emigration of Christians from the city, sweeping new Israeli taxes on all church property and the scandal of the fraudulent sale of leases on key Christian sites in the Old City to an extremist Jewish settler group aiming to “judaicise” Jerusalem.
As a result, the churches – which barely spoke to each other and for centuries had been locked in theological dispute – set up a council of all the 13 churches in the city 15 years ago to co-ordinate their views. The Anglicans provide the secretariat, which convenes the council every two months, and where the churches work out a united response to challenges.
One of the sharpest came two years ago, when the city’s former mayor, Nir Barkat, suddenly announced new property taxes on church land, backdated for the past 27 years and amounting in total to some $200 million. Fearing immediate bankruptcy, the churches reacted swiftly. In February last year they took a step not seen for at least 500 years of closing the entire Holy Sepulchre church for three days. This caught public attention around the world, especially in America, and alarmed the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who was eager to underpin White House support for his government. Within days the new tax had been set aside. But the churches fear that, because of the severe shortage of building land in Jerusalem, there will be fresh attempts to tax their extensive properties.
The Russian Orthodox Church, however, which has huge land holdings in Jerusalem, has been able to count on the close relations between President Putin and Israel, and has been largely free from Israeli pressure. It is nevertheless one of the important churches in the city, and Patriarch Kirill visited the Holy Sepulchre during a high-profile visit to Jerusalem in 2015.
The other huge challenge the other churches face is the fall-out from the scandal of the fraudulent sale of leases 15 years ago by the Greek Orthodox Church to Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing settler organisation whose long-term aim is to “redeem” land in Jerusalem and expel the city’s non-Jewish residents. News of the secret deal was splashed across an Israeli newspaper in 2005 and caused fury and consternation in the Greek Orthodox Church and among all other Christian denominations in Jerusalem, whose members are mostly Palestinian Arabs. The Patriarch, who claimed he did not know the details, was deposed within weeks and reduced to the status of a monk. Key documents relating to the contract disappeared.
A new patriarch, Theophilos III, was elected and promptly declared the leases invalid as they had been obtained by bribery and fraud, without the agreement of the Holy Synod or the signature of former patriarch Irineos. They had been negotiated by a junior 29-year-old official of the patriarchate for a sum less than half the market value. He subsequently fled to Greece, where he was arrested with over 100,000 euros in cash and the same sum again in watches and jewellery, but then escaped to Panama.
The issue affected all the other Christians, as the Greek Church, dating back to Byzantine times, is the oldest in the city, has by far the largest land holdings and is one of the three responsible for the Holy Sepulchre. In 2008 Ateret Cohanim went to court to obtain possession of the four properties in strategic places within the Christian quarter: a big hotel next to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, a smaller hotel nearby, a property near Herod’s Gate and the St John hostel, a large building right beside the Holy Sepulchre which has subsequently been occupied by Jewish squatters after Ateret Cohanim paid the tenant to leave.
The first court case upheld the deal, and so the Greek patriarchate then appealed. The final judgment was delivered on Monday and again backed Ateret Cohanim – although acknowledging that it had bribed the patriarchate official and criticising the settler group for not going to court to explain this $35,000 bribe. Unless new evidence can be found, there is now no further appeal.
The churches see this as a huge blow. They fear it will increase the pressure on their dwindling congregations and will encourage Israeli politicians to impose new taxes or pass laws to make them release land needed for housing. The churches argue that they need the income from their tenants to pay for hospitals, social work and the schools they provide that offer a Christian education.
Most worryingly, the judgment is seen as a challenge to the all-important “Status Quo”, under which church rights and properties, many dating back to Ottoman times, are broadly protected. There has been an informal agreement with the Jerusalem mayor’s office and with the Israeli government that this freezing of the churches’ standing in the city should not be changed until the overall political status of Jerusalem has been settled in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
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Most of the churches are made up largely of Palestinian Christians, who regularly puts pressure on the leadership to take a more overtly pro-Palestinian political position. Church leaders are reluctant to do this, fearing it would jeopardise their working relations with the Israeli authorities and would ensnare them in current political disputes.
In view of the pronounced shift in Israeli politics to the right and the widespread support for Ateret Cohanim and its aims in key Israeli institutions such as the judiciary, the mayoral office and the Knesset, the churches fear they will soon be the target of a new political campaign against their privileged position. “They want to keep the churches as museums for tourists without any of the Christians here,” is how one anxious Palestinian expressed the widespread fears.
The common threat, however, as well as the urgent need to repair the Holy Sepulchre, has done more to cement church unity in Jerusalem than 500 years of frigid co-existence. Clergy and bishops welcome this unity. They see it as more relevant to their day-to-day work in trying to bolster the embattled position of Christians in the Holy Land than conferences on ecumenism or issues of doctrine. And for the throng of pilgrims arriving in ever greater numbers in Jerusalem, the new welcoming atmosphere in the repaired Holy Sepulchre increases their veneration and awe for this historic birthplace of their faith.