Is nothing sacred?

It's the holiest of Christian sites - the place where Jesus was buried. But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has become a battleground where priests fight and monks stone each other. Victoria Clark reports on an ungodly turf war
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The Independent Online

Father Athanasius's Texan drawl sounds as steady as ever down the phone from Jerusalem but the tale he's recounting is hair-raising: "... I refused to close the door to our chapel and then the Greeks, priests and deacons and acolytes attacked the Israeli police standing by the door and I was pushed away and fell down, and someone was kicking me, and more police arrived..."

Father Athanasius's Texan drawl sounds as steady as ever down the phone from Jerusalem but the tale he's recounting is hair-raising: "... I refused to close the door to our chapel and then the Greeks, priests and deacons and acolytes attacked the Israeli police standing by the door and I was pushed away and fell down, and someone was kicking me, and more police arrived..."

My Catholic friar friend eventually explains that this latest explosion of Christian-on-Christian violence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem occurred on 27 September last year, on the Orthodox Feast of the True Cross. Although it happened four months ago, the authors of the crime - Greek Orthodox churchmen - have not yet been brought to book.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the sanctified home to the site of Christ's crucifixion, as well the tomb he vacated three days later - is no stranger to violent bloodshed. Christian denominations have been violently contesting each others' rights to occupy every last inch of this holiest of holy places since shortly after the the first church was built on the site around AD330.

Soon it will be Easter, and the vast 12th-century Crusader church will host more services, processions and ceremonies than at any other time of the year. That means more friction and more occasions for violence. "From Catholic Palm Sunday on 20 March to the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony on 23 April is a five-week danger period for us," Father Athanasius says. "I'm really scared someone's going to get killed."

While I was in Jerusalem investigating the contribution the world's Christian powers have made to the world's most intractable conflict, I witnessed two major fights between churchmen and many minor ones. The first, on Holy Saturday in 2002, involved the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Irineos I, and an Armenian priest, who were supposed to be co-operating in the ritual surrounding the Orthodox "miracle" of the Holy Fire. Many Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter every year God descends in the shape of a flame spontaneously ignited inside the shrine of Christ's tomb. On this occasion, behind the closed doors of the shrine, the two churchmen fell out over whether tradition demanded that they both "receive" the Holy Fire at once, or whether the Greek patriarch must take precedence.

Impatient, the Armenian improvised his own "holy fire" with the far from miraculous aid of a cigarette lighter. In a space no bigger than a couple of telephone boxes, an ungodly tussle ensued. The patriarch blew out his companion's candle and somehow lost a shoe. The Armenian was badly bruised when two Greek monks and then two Israeli police stormed the shrine.

The second incident, in July that year, landed 11 monks in hospital. The argument was over whether or not an elderly Egyptian monk should be permitted to sit under a eucalyptus tree on the Ethiopians' roof terrace. "This is an invasion," a young Ethiopian monk named Solomon insisted a month before the battle. "Today he sits here on his chair. Tomorrow, another Copt will come with his chair and perhaps a table. One day the Egyptians will claim that they have the right to be in this courtyard, and they will take our monastery!"

The affair escalated from haughty stares at the snoozing Copt to a battle in which stones and metal railings were deployed. The Copts, whose monastery overlooks the Ethiopians' roof terrace, came off best.

The Israeli authorities responded to the first incident by deploying a thousand police in the square of the Old City on the morning of the Holy Fire ceremony of 2003. George Hintlian, a pillar of the city's Armenian community, a historian and an expert in matters concerning the Christian holy places, was expecting another dust-up. He told me that "we Armenians don't want a fight, but we can have people ready to take up strategic positions around the church".

After the battle of the chair, the Israelis installed CCTV cameras in the Ethiopians' roof terrace. For all the Israelis' patient shuttling between the two communities in search of a resolution, one had not been found by Christmas 2003. Two Israeli police were still escorting the old Copt to his post under the Ethiopians' tree every morning.

Jerusalem's rulers, whether they were the Ottoman Turks for 500 years until 1917, the British of the mandate period until 1948, or the Israelis thereafter, have often mocked and marvelled at the bitter feuds of the Christians in their favourite holy place, but all have tried to limit the causes of friction.

No fewer than six different kinds of Christian enjoy grossly unequal shares in the use and management of the church. Lording it as representatives of the oldest and richest church of the Holy Land and heirs to the glories of Byzantium are the Greek Orthodox, who control about 40 per cent of the church's territory and contents. At the other end of the scale is the tiny community of Ethiopians who inhabit a cluster of little huts on their rooftop terrace, directly above the ground that they believe King Solomon gave to their Queen of Sheba long before Jesus was even born. They can be heard to complain that "in Western Europe, dogs and cats have a better life than we have here".

The Catholic Franciscan community that Father Athanasius belongs to only won a foothold in the 14th century, after payment of a hefty bribe, but it is now the second-greatest power. The wealth and influence acquired as merchants in the Ottoman Empire have elevated the Armenian Oriental Orthodox to third position, while the Egyptian Copts make do with one tiny chapel. The Syrian Jacobites, who boast what Father Athanasius calls the "badly beat-up Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea", are almost as underprivileged as the Ethiopians.

The shared shrine of the tomb and the ambulatory encircling it are the flashpoints. Twice, the protrusion of a Coptic doormat an extra two inches into the ambulatory has ignited violent argument.

On the occasion of the battle described by Father Athanasius, a procession was taking place in a shared area of the church, near the shrine. The 140th head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Patriarch Irineos I, was magnificently robed and holding aloft a cross containing a relic of the one on which Christ was crucified. Behind came a small army of hymn-singing churchmen, and then a larger crowd of Orthodox pilgrims. All was going well until the open door of the Catholic Franciscans' side-chapel caught the patriarch's eye. He instructed his retinue to see to its closure.

Father Athanasius happened to be standing by the offending door. Politely, he refused to oblige. Then, about 40 Greek clergy resorted to force. Ten Israeli police positioned in front of the chapel (they are on routine duty in the church to prevent precisely such confrontations) were attacked. In the 21-minute brawl, one of them lost three teeth. Father Athanasius was knocked to the ground and kicked. Twenty-five Israeli police were needed to calm passions, and at least three Greek monks were arrested.

By chance, two video recordings of the procession and its unscripted battle-scene exist, filmed by locals hoping to sell copies of the ceremony to Orthodox pilgrims. The Franciscans have decided to present this evidence to a higher authority; only the Israeli government can resolve a dispute this serious. "But we are still waiting for their response," Father Athanasius says. "Yes, I know they've got more important things to think about right now, but time is short. I can't tell you how embarrassing this is for all the Holy Land churches. In fact, we only want it publicised because Easter is coming. Something has to be done.'

In the four years I have known him, Father Athanasius has tended to play down hostilities in the holy places. In the spring of 2000, he assured me that the three great powers of the church had solved 90 per cent of their disagreements, and it was only the lesser powers who were still disgracing their faith. "Things only tend to go wrong these days when, let's say, the Copts behave like kids reaching for the candy jar," he had joked. "You slap them down, but they creep back and try again."

We had chuckled over minor ruckuses, like the one about the Greek Orthodox and Armenians and Catholics competing for the privilege of repairing a manhole cover that happened to straddle the meeting point of their three territories. He had told me how jealously the Greeks guarded their right to clean the church's lavatories.

But there is no trace of his Texan humour now. A tiny sign that the Greek Orthodox are not feeling chastened by their autumn misdemeanour scares him: Father Athanasius strongly suspects that, without consultation, the Greeks have filled in the cracks in the shared slab of stone on which Jesus was anointed before burial. "They say they didn't do it, that pilgrims did it, but what kind of pilgrim goes around with a supply of cement and a palette knife?"

For the other side, I telephone a friend, a Greek Orthodox bishop. Even if he can't account for the workings of his patriarch's mind last September, Bishop Theophanis is a good guide to the prevailing mood among the city's Greek Orthodox clergy.

Speaking from his bungalow on the roof terrace of the Greek patriarchate, next door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he offers no excuse. "Frankly," he says, "it was an act of provocation from our side." But he cannot resist a dig at the Franciscans. "I have to tell you that those Catholics can sometimes behave like Crusaders here and they're not good at respecting us Orthodox as the first Christian church of the Holy Land - but still, Irineos was silly and Athanasius behaved quite correctly."

Bishop Theophanis warns against judging any church by its personnel: "The Orthodox Church is much bigger than that. Man is always weak and silly. The Catholics are great ones for confusing the man and the institution..." When I protest that lives may be at stake now, that patriarchs are notoriously difficult to remove and that Irineos is only 64, Bishop Theophanis heaves a sad sigh: "If he lasts another 20 years, we can forget about a Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem."

That a usually phlegmatic Texan is raising the alarm about Eastertide violence, and a proud Greek is contemplating the collapse of the city's fifth-century patriarchate, is some indication of the seriousness of the situation. While the Palestinian issue has hogged the spotlight, few have focused on the sideshow in the Church of the Sepulchre. But it is starting to matter a great deal to anyone who thinks Christianity should retain a stake in the land where it was born.

There is talk now of resuming the "road map" to peace. Sooner or later, the burning question of Jerusalem's status will have to be raised and attention focused on every inch of that city, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis are already seeking ways to secure as much as possible of the city for themselves ahead of a final settlement. And who could blame them for asking themselves why the Greek Orthodox patriarchate continues to own so much prime property, including the land on which their Knesset is built, and why the Armenian Quarter accounts for one-sixth of the Old City, and why the Catholic Franciscan holdings make up another large fraction...

If the guardians of the Christian holy places are turning on each other more violently than ever, that's probably because they feel more threatened and vulnerable today than they have for a century.

'Holy Fire: the battle for Christ's tomb' by Victoria Clark is published on Friday (Macmillan, £20)

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