Churches Sharing Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Forge New Cooperation

Sara Toth Stub

JERUSALEM -- One of the first things tour guides point out about Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Church, Christianity's holiest shrine, is a wooden ladder perched on a balcony just above the main entrance.

"That ladder has been there 200 years, and if you ever come here and that ladder's not here, something very bad has happened," one Israeli guide tells a group of Americans on a recent afternoon. "That's the status-quo ladder."

The guide then explains how an Ottoman Turkish sultan's 1852 declaration about which Christian denominations control which parts of the sprawling church -- originally made to calm tensions between the world's powers in the Holy Land -- is still essential today to preserve peace between the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox churches, all which have convents and chapels and conduct myriad daily liturgies here.

This so-called status quo declaration essentially froze the church in time. The times and places of the dozens of daily religious services haven't changed in more than a century, and seemingly mundane objects -- such as that ladder -- have also remained in place, especially in areas shared by denominations.

Perceived violations of the status quo over the years have resulted in verbal arguments, fistfights and strained relations between the churches. In fact, the fighting among the various churches has become part of the Holy Sepulchre's story, along with the events of the crucifixion and burial and resurrection of Jesus that many Christians believe happened here. The delicate relations have also meant that much of the building has fallen into disrepair, as agreeing to fix or upgrade shared spaces has proven difficult.

But now this appears to be changing. In May, the local leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches -- the denominations given primary control in the status-quo declaration -- signed an agreement to renovate the floor, foundations and sewage system of the church. It is the latest sign of growing cooperation among the denominations in the face of the urgent need to preserve their ancient properties, a growing influx of pilgrims and tourists and an increased need for self-preservation as local communities shrink and there is no resolution in sight for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The cooperation is increasing, and it's more ambitious," says Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies who focuses on local Christian communities. "It's a sign they have more trust in one another."

Motivated to Restore a Holy Landmark

In 2017, the three primary denominations restored the Edicule, the structure inside the church that covers the entrance to an underground tomb and which was in danger of collapsing. The denominations are also cooperating on repairs at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; they confer regularly and have banded together in voicing opposition to recent Israeli government policies.

The denominations say that momentum for cooperation has increased, with one project leading to another.

A large part of the motivation for the cooperation is to save the church, as the recent work on the Edicule revealed that much of the building, including its main rotunda, is sitting on unstable and unsafe foundations, made from the remains of earlier versions of the building. Much of the building's floor, cobbled together over the centuries, is uneven and unstable. The 200-year-old sewage system often leaks, adding more unpleasant smells to the already-musty building. Humidity in the church is also damaging books and wooden objects, including icons, as well as taking a toll of the health of the monks who live there, says the Rev. Koryoun Baghdasarian, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.

"The conditions in the church are horrible," Baghdasarian says. "It's a disgrace for the holiest place in the world for all Christians."

A sharp increase in visitors to the church, part of the recent surge in tourism to Jerusalem, is also on the minds of church leaders. The church will remain open during the project, although individual areas are likely to be closed temporarily.

"We must surely work in parts and sections, because the pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre have increased enormously," the Rev. Francesco Patton, the Roman Catholic custodian of sites of the Holy Land, said in a statement.

Christianity's Precarious Position in Israel

Cooperation among the churches also comes amid growing uncertainty about the future of Christianity in the Middle East in general, and locally, where churches increasingly feel pressure from recent Israeli government measures. Last year the denominations agreed to close the Holy Sepulchre to all visitors for three days -- an unprecedented move -- to protest a Jerusalem municipal proposal to tax church property.

The denominations have also united recently in statements against Israel's contentious Nation State Law that passed last year and says national self-determination in Israel is a right "unique to the Jewish people," raising worries about the rights of Israel's Muslim, Christian and other minority populations.

"Everybody is now realizing and acknowledges that if Jerusalem maintains her Christian character as well, it depends on us as well," the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III said in a statement about the renovation agreement. "Therefore our mission is very important, not only in religious terms but also in diplomatic terms and inevitably in political terms."

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The precarious position of Christianity and its dwindling number of local adherents is also leading to more cooperation among the various denominations, says Simon Azazian, director of information at the Palestinian Bible Society, a non-denominational Christian organization that has seen more attendance at its events in recent years. Since 1948, mass emigration has reduced Jerusalem's Christian population from about 20% to 2%, with local Christians citing Israel's treatment of Palestinians -- which most Christians identify as -- and Islamic extremism within Palestinian society among the challenges they face.

"We are becoming a very small minority, and we feel there is an urgent need to unite ourselves," Azazian said. "We cannot ignore that there are still tensions among us, but in general there is a move toward unity."

But even with the increased cooperation, many challenges lie ahead for the renovation project, including funding and sorting through issues not covered in the status quo arrangement, parts of which the various churches also disagree on, Ramon says. The churches have said they will contribute equally to the project so that the building cannot be seen as belonging to any one party. They also say that outside donations, including $500 million reportedly pledged by Jordan, which has agreements with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to oversee Christian and Muslim sites in Jerusalem, will be put into a joint bank account and will not exert political influence or ownership on the church.

Uncertainties Over the Future of Cooperation Agreement

Hoping to avoid conflicts, the three denominations stated in the renovation agreement that they will jointly own the archaeological artifacts they expect to be discovered during the work on the foundation.

"But we have never owned objects together, so we will have to figure out how exactly to do it," Baghdasarian says. "Maybe we can put them on display, but of course that's only my idea and would need the approval of the others."

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The building's three other denominations -- Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian -- actually have no say in the matter of renovation because the status quo arrangement did not grant these smaller groups any management rights to the common areas of the church, or to the building administration.

A representative of the Coptic Church says they had not even been informed of the renovation, or what it would mean for them.

"Unfortunately we didn't receive any information yet about this renovation, so we have nothing to share at this point," the Coptic patriarch's secretary wrote in an email. Anton Hanna, a local Christian and practicing Roman Catholic, said he is excited about the project, saying it would could also provide jobs to a community that struggles economically, but he remains cautiously optimistic.

"I'm afraid the project can be stopped if any arguments come up," says Hanna, who had come to the church for a Mass celebrating the Feast of the Ascension in early June. "But we pray for them to work together."

Sara Toth Stub is a journalist based in Jerusalem. She spent a decade writing for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, and has also written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, BBC Travel and other publications. You can find her on Twitter here.