Sunday, November 9, 2008

Monks Brawl in Church of the Holy Sepulchre


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. In 326 A.D., the Emperor Constantine commissioned the building of a church over the site that was believed to be Jesus' tomb. And according to Christian tradition, it marks the spot of both Jesus' crucifixion at Golgotha and his resurrection. It also houses a stone slab which, according to tradition, is where Jesus' dead body was laid after being taken down from the cross.

Oversight of the church belongs to five different Christian groups: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics (Franciscans), Armenians, Coptics, and Ethiopians. The peace between these different Christians is maintained by the Status Quo, which was issued by Abdul Mecit in 1852 and later reaffirmed by the Crimean War treaty. It defines the privileges enjoyed by the different clergy groups in both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Church of the Nativity.

In practical terms, this means dividing each of these churches into different spaces that are assigned to each group for their worship. That can be difficult to maintain, since it's easy to overstep one's assigned boundaries and encroach on somebody else's turf. And even when the boundaries are observed, one of the results is liturgical cacophony. If you go very early Sunday morning to the Holy Sepulchre, each of the Christian groups are conducting separate but simultaneous worship services. And each tries to be louder than the other. (According to a fellow pilgrim who attended early Sunday morning while we were in Jerusalem, the Franciscans had the upper hand here because they have the organ, which was played very loudly and drowned out everything else.)

In order to insure the Status Quo, a Muslim family in Jerusalem was given the key to the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, a representative of this family opens the church every morning and locks it each evening.

The divisions and competitive spirit between the five Christian groups tend to insure that badly needed repairs almost never get started or completed at either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or at the Church of the Nativity. There's no fire exit at the Holy Sepulchre because the Christians can't agree on where to put it. A ladder placed on a ledge of the church back in the 19th Century is still there because no one can agree on who has the authority to take it down. Scaffolding climbs the side of the Holy Sepulchre which, according to our tour guide, has been there as long as he can remember (and he has to be in his 50s). It's quite possible that both churches could literally cave in with nothing being done to prevent it.

In spite of it all, the pilgrims continue to be touched by the presence of the Holy here. When I visited just a couple of weeks ago, the Holy Sepulchre was so crowded with pilgrims from all over the world that it was difficult to even move (much less get many good pictures). That didn't stop pilgrims from prostrating themselves and venerating the holy sites inside the church, often with deep, heartfelt emotion. It was a moving scene.

Early this Sunday morning, there were expressions of a different sort inside the church. Here's an excerpt from the story in today's Jerusalem Post:

Police rushed into one of Christianity's holiest churches Sunday and arrested two clergyman after an argument between monks erupted into a brawl next to the site of Jesus' tomb. The clash broke out between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection. 
It began as Armenian clergymen marched in an annual procession commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. It ended with the arrival of dozens of riot policemen who separated the sides, seizing a bearded Armenian monk in a red-and-pink robe and a black-clad Greek Orthodox monk with a bloody gash on his forehead. Both men were taken away in handcuffs. 
The feud revolves around a demand by the Greek Orthodox to post a monk inside the Edicule - the ancient structure built on what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus - during the Armenian procession. The Armenians refused, and when they tried to march the Greek Orthodox monks blocked their way. 
"We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through ... and establish a right that they don't have," said a young Greek Orthodox monk with a cut next to his left eye. The monk, who gave his name as Serafim, said he sustained the wound when an Armenian punched him from behind and broke his glasses. 
Father Pakrat of the Armenian Patriarchate said the Greek demand was "against the status quo arrangement and against the internal arrangement of the Holy Sepulcher." He said the Greeks attacked first. 
Archbishop Aristarchos, the chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, said his monks had not initiated the violence. "I'm sorry that these events happened in front of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the most holy religious monument of Christianity," he said. After the brawl, the church was crowded with police holding assault rifles and equipped with riot gear, standing beside Golgotha, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and the long smooth stone marking the place where tradition holds his body was laid out.

Here's video footage of the "unholy slugfest":

Christians beating each other up right next to the site where tradition says that Jesus was crucified! And monks, at that! If this weren't such a sad and pathetic witness to the world, it would be comedic, like a scene out of a Monty Python movie.

By stark contrast to the behavior of these monks in one of the holiest sites of Christendom, our tour guide (who was an Arab Christian) told us several times that Christians who live in the Holy Land almost never refer to themselves by denominational affiliation. They don't say, "I'm Roman Catholic," or, "I'm Greek Orthodox," or, "I'm Anglican," etc. Instead, he said that they simply refer themselves as Christians. If I remember what our guide told us correctly, Christians comprise about 1.5-1.8% of the total population in Israel, a number which decreases yearly. So as Christians become more and more a beleaguered minority in the Holy Land, most of them see little to be gained by competing with each other. And so they emphasize what they share in common. "We are Christians."

Perhaps the monks at Holy Sepulchre could learn a thing or two from that.


Michael said...

I honestly didn't doubt for a minute this story when I read about it in the news. The youtube video is revealing though. Remarkable coverage, unfortunately a horrible witness to our faith! This type of in fighting isn't uncommon elsewhere, even in the U.S. since Orthodoxy is so ethnically divided and in some sense even xenophobic.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting,Michael. This truly is a pathetic witness to our faith - just the sort of thing to give ammo to hardcore atheists and to give reasons for turning away in disgust to those who want to believe but find it difficult.

Sadly, given what I know about the longstanding divisions between the various Christian groups, this doesn't surprise me. If anything, I'm surprised that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

There's an excellent blog piece about all of this posted at Blogs4God.