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How Christian Communities Coexist Within the Church of Holy Sepulchre

Holy Sepulchre
The Altar of Crucifixion inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Credit: Ondřej Žváček / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in the world for Christian believers. It is believed to contain two holy sites: the place of Christ’s crucifixion and the location of the tomb where he was buried and resurrected.

Thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the site every year. However, no shortage of compromise is needed to ensure that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is accessible to all, since the various Christian denominations sometimes have very different ideas and doctrines regarding the proper practice of faith in places of immense religious importance.

The main custodians of the church are the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic denominations. Other denominations and some secular bodies also play a role in taking care of the site.

History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a significant pilgrimage site for Christians and believers of different religions for many centuries. It is believed to be the tomb of Christ, discovered in the fourth century by the Bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

To enclose the burial site, Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a church around 135 AD. This that led to the development of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Edicule, a small edifice, was built to protect the rock-cut tomb and has been rebuilt twice since its construction in the eleventh century.

The current structure, built in an Ottoman Baroque style by a Greek architect in 1810, encloses two spaces: the Tomb Chamber, which can be accessed through the Chapel of the Angel, in accordance with the Christian gospels.

Custodians of the church

The Holy Sepulchre is taken care of by three significant Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The Greek Orthodox community is represented by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, while the Roman Catholics are represented by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Additionally, in the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox communities were given lesser duties, which involve managing shrines and other structures within and around the Church.

The doors to the church itself, as well as the keys to open them, are not held by any of the Christian denominations. Instead, two Muslim families are responsible for safeguarding the keys and operating the doors in a tradition that can be traced back as far as 1192.

Peaceful coexistence?

Clashes between clergymen belonging to the various Christian communities responsible for looking after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are not unheard of.

In 1902, a dispute arose between the Franciscan and Greek Orthodox communities over the cleaning of the Chapel of the Franks’ lowest step, which resulted in 18 friars being hospitalized and some monks being imprisoned.

Following this particular incident, a convention was signed by the Greek patriarch, Franciscan custos, Ottoman governor, and French consul general, allowing both denominations to sweep the step in question.

More recently in 2002, a conflict broke out when a Coptic monk moved his chair from the agreed spot to a shaded area, which was viewed as a hostile action by the Ethiopians. As a result, eleven people were hospitalized in the ensuing scuffle.

In 2004, there was yet another incident. During Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel remained unclosed. The Orthodox clergymen interpreted this as an insult and a fistfight broke out, although no one was seriously hurt.

In 2008, there were two incidents. In April, a physical altercation erupted when a Greek monk was expelled from the Holy Sepulchre by a rival group, resulting in law enforcement being summoned to the area. However, the irate fighters also attacked the police.

Then, in November, another brawl took place between Armenian and Greek monks during celebrations marking the Feast of the Cross.

Although incidents like these do happen, the Christian communities who worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre generally find ways to accommodate each other and make compromises.

Moreover, when the future of the church itself is threatened, they have proven capable of banding together despite their differences.

When the church building was teetering on the edge of collapse in the mid-20th century, the disagreeing Christian communities put aside their differences and worked together at restoring the church’s structure.

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