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Middle East Peace Deal Success

Asia News provides the epilogue to a story that’s been running for several years:

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land yesterday published the following statement: “On Saturday, 2 September, 2006, by prior arrangement, the lock was put back in the Main Door of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem – which had been illegally removed from it in the spring or summer of 2002…”

The lock had been removed by Greek Orthodox monks, in alleged defiance of the “Status Quo” – the old Ottoman law which decrees which Christian groups can control which parts of the various Christian holy sites. Monks and priests squabbling over their respective claims had kept local Muslims amused for centuries, but the fun had to end when great powers such as France and Russia began making demands with menaces on behalf of their particular confessional groups. The result was the “Status Quo”, issued in 1862 and re-confirming the situation as it stood in 1757. One of the best-known consequences of the decision is that the outside of the Holy Sepulchre now features an Armenian ladder on a Greek ledge that cannot legally be moved.

The “status quo” gave the Greeks control over the door to the Church of the Nativity, but also gave keys to the Armenians and Catholics. The Ecumenical News Service reported:

Archbishop Aristarchos said that the decision was triggered after the door was opened, by either (Roman Catholic) Franciscan or Armenian monks, without the permission of the Greek Orthodox Church.

“We insist on our rights,” said Aristarchos in a reference to the Greek Orthodox claim to be the only group with the right to take such an action.

Now, what possible reason might the others have had for opening the door?

A group of Palestinian militants fleeing from Israeli troops took refuge in the church and refused to give themselves up for weeks, before the two sides reached a negotiated settlement to the incident. Several of the Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the siege, and their bodies were taken from the church by Franciscans. Unable to find their keys at the time, the Franciscans turned to the Armenians who lent them their own.

But the Greek Orthodox monks objected to the doors being opened without their permission to remove the corpses.

The Greek Orthodox monks were also reported to have been furious that their Franciscan counterparts allowed Muslim prayers to be recited over the dead Palestinians, within a section of the church that is controlled by the Greek Orthodox.

Hostility between the groups has also had other consequences, as the Telegraph reported last year:

Squabbling over crucial roof repairs between the three Christian communities who share custodianship of Jesus’s birthplace is endangering the 1,500-year-old basilica.

Large holes in the 500-year-old lead roof have let rainwater flood inside for years. It streams down the walls and threatens to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics.

Spokesmen for all three communities admit that the roof is in a deplorable state but talks on the issue have broken down, angering archaeologists and historians.

The dispute over the keys was blamed by the Armenian Patriarch on the Greek Patriarch Irineos, whom he described as “capricious and self-serving”.

Irineos – described by Asia News as “violently anti-Catholic” – was later deposed by his own synod. As I blogged at the time, the patriarch had orginally been held in suspicion by Israel and had been excoriated for anti-Semitism in Front Page (telling Arafat of his “disgust and disrespect…for the descendants of the crucifiers”). However, last year he was found to have been responsible for the sale of church property to a right-wing Israeli group which was attempting to increase the Israeli presence in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem. Irineos blamed his treasurer Nicholas Papadimas, who promptly went missing. The upshot was that Irineos, now supported by Israel (well, why let a little “disgust and disrespect” get in the way of things?), was fired and replaced by Theofilos. This turn of events was decried by WorldNetDaily‘s Jerusalem correspondent Aaron Klein – whose benign accounts of the Israeli far-right have been documented by both myself and ConWebWatch – on the predictable grounds that Theofilos’s unwillingness to sell property on Palestinian land to the Israeli occupiers was simply anti-Jewish.

Asia News gives a bit of political context to the return of the old lock:

The happy resolution of this affair, after more than four years, is significant for a number of reasons: It will encourage Catholics (and Armenians) everywhere to support even more emphatically the right of the Greek Orthodox to religious freedom in electing their own leaders; in fact, the Government of Israel is still refusing to “recognise” the canonical election of Theophilos.

…The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has gained merit by recognising in this case its obligations concerning the Holy Places, under the ‘Basic Agreement’ with the Holy See, and has thereby given a positive signal concerning the prospects of the Catholic Church in reference to the future Palestinian republic.

Irineos, meanwhile, has slipped into obscurity, and whether he now accepts his demotion to simple “monk” is not known. And as far as I can tell, his treasurer remains missing…

2 Responses

  1. “We insist on our rights.”
    What jerks.

    Nice article. :0)

  2. 1862? Sounds like a post-mortem from the Crimean War (1848) which was sparked over religious perogatives in Jerusalem, but fought in The Ukraine.

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