NEWS FEATURE: Dispute snarls making Church of the Holy Sepulcher safe for pilgrims

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ It is the holy city’s premier Christian site _ a pilgrimage point that will draw hundreds of thousands of Christians in the Year 2000. And yet the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition holds Jesus was buried, could potentially become a deadly firetrap for pilgrims because it lacks an emergency exit, according to Israeli authorities.

Although there are many ancient exits from the cavernous building that could actually serve the purpose, all have been closed for generations. Opening one of those ancient doors is proving to be a delicate diplomatic mission involving at least six different Christian denominations, the Israeli government and, indirectly, the Palestinian Authority.

The key obstacle is the complex”status quo”arrangement under which the various denominations control different parts of the Holy Sepulcher complex.

The Greek Orthodox are the senior occupants of the structure, with a presence there dating back to Byzantine times. But the Catholic Franciscan order and the Armenian Church also control significant sections of the church complex. And the Syrian Orthodox, the Ethiopian and the Egyptian Coptic churches have additional minor claims to buildings and grounds directly attached to the church.

The division of rights in the church make it extraordinarily difficult to gain agreement to any sort of repairs in the aging structure, parts of which are over 1,000 years old.”The situation is very serious,”said Uri Mor, Israel’s representative to the Christian communities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs.”It’s clear that in the year 2000, millions of pilgrims will come and they won’t be able to enter because the capacity of the church, without an emergency exit, is very small.” Without an agreement among the churches themselves, Israeli officials have hinted they may act unilaterally to open a door within the church or else drastically limit the number of pilgrims who will be permitted to enter in the millennial year.

The threat of fire in the ancient church is greatest at Easter time, the officials said. Then, thousands of Orthodox Christians jam the church with lit torches and candles, for the mystical”Ceremony of the Holy Fire.”Yet in a deeply traditional Middle Eastern society where safety standards remain an innovation and fatalistic attitudes towards life and death still hold sway, the danger has been insufficient to prompt action for decades.”You can’t open a theater today without four emergency exists,”Mor said.”But here, where you have 17,000 people with burning torches, there is only one door.” Just last week, in response to the building Israeli pressure, the Franciscans became the first to issue an unequivocal statement in support of opening a second passageway.”The Custody of the Holy Land considers the emergency exit necessary; it is a moral imperative. The custody has informed the government of this position in the presence of the other communities. The keys are to be given to each of the three communities,”said the Rev. David Yaeger, a Rome-based Franciscan brother and law professor.

In an interview, the leading Greek Orthodox figure in the Holy Sepulcher, Metropolitan Daniel, said an emergency door”would be good, but only for use in an emergency.” But the key player, the Greek Orthodox Church has refused to say anything on the matter. Behind the scenes, Orthodox officials clearly are worried the issue of the door might somehow upset the delicate balance of powers holding sway in the church today.

The”status quo”arrangements governing the Holy Sepulcher are a part and parcel of the religious traditions among the churches that have a place in the site. Preserving this tradition, which governs everything from the times when services are conducted to responsibility for cleaning and repairs, may seem like an anachronism to many Westerners. But for the priests and brothers who maintain the holy site, it is a vital part of their heritage.”The status quo is a lived tradition. You do something that your forefathers did. You follow in their footsteps,”said the American-born Father Attanatias Makora, a Franciscan representative to the all-important status-quo committee that organizes necessary repairs and alterations in the building.

The existing”status quo”arrangements were actually defined in the mid-19th century by the Turkish sultan to settle quarrels between the Catholics and Orthodox over church territory. The arrangements were put in writing in 1929 by a British mandate official in Jerusalem.

But what really counts, everyone agrees, is the day-to-day practice in the church.”Every church is trying to conserve its historical rights,”said one monk connected to the church.”While all of this insistence on possession may seem ridiculous, if you don’t use your rights, you lose them.” This fear is not pure paranoia.

In its long history, the church has changed hands on several occasions moving from the control of the Orthodox churches in Byzantine times _ roughly 400-1100 A.D. _ to the Catholics during the Crusades (1200-1400 A.D.) and then ultimately to the present-day split between six different church bodies.

Meanwhile, the evidence of unresolved disputes are visible everywhere in the building. Visitors to the church will notice ladders standing in stray places, merely in order to preserve the rights of a certain church order which placed them there decades ago. Scaffolding encases the stone”epicule,”or sanctuary, directly over the Holy Sepulcher tomb and the needed repair work is unlikely to be completed even for millennium celebrations. The main rotunda of the church, damaged in an earthquake in 1927, took 40 years to repair.

A new emergency exit, many fear, may also induce a new dynamic of change in the existing order. The only feasible site for the exit is in a Greek Orthodox section of the church via an outside courtyard held by the Ethiopians and the Copts. Orthodox officials are apparently worried the exit might invite territorial”incursions”by the other denominations.

Complicating things even further is the politically sensitive question of who would get the keys to the new door, a question that even has implications for the Middle East peace process. The keys to the main entrance of the church have been held by a prominent Jerusalem Arab Muslim family ever since the Islamic warrior Saladin evicted the Crusaders from Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

Opening an emergency exit, some Palestinian Arabs fear, might really be an Israeli ploy to obtain a key to the vital holy site, thus bolstering the nation’s claim to sovereignty in much-contested eastern Jerusalem. At the very least, the Christian denominations themselves would obtain keys to the emergency exit, diminishing the role of the Muslim caretakers _ an important symbol of Arab historical rights in the holy city.

Israeli officials deny politics has anything to do with the current controversy. They say the issue is purely a safety matter. And they have warned that if the churches don’t move on their own, Israel is likely to force their hand.”Every month there are meetings. We talk and there is some progress,”said Mor, who is negotiating with the churches.”But if it took 30 years to decide what color to paint the cupola of the church, then things are not moving at a pace that is appropriate for the 20th century.” (OPTIONAL TRIM _ STORY MAY END HERE)

Some 750,000 pilgrims currently visit the church annually. If the flow of visitors were to be reduced by half, only about one in 10 of the pilgrims expected for the millennium may actually get a chance to visit the famous site.

On the other hand, officials such as Mor have suggested the”emergency exit”should in fact be opened for the entire millennial yea, permitting the church to double its capacity.

In the opinion of Bishop Daniel, who stands every day in the Holy Sepulcher plaza outside of the main entrance watching the faithful come and go, an emergency exit, should be reserved for genuine emergencies _ and that doesn’t include the flood of pilgrims expected for the millennium.”This is a private place, a place of prayer.”said the grey bearded monk in a long blue frock, his hair cropped by a black felt cap.”The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not a museum. The people who go inside will be those who are going to pray. Not everyone will come inside.”


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