Co-existence at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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A Christian worshiper carries a palm fond inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The sanctuary associated with the birth of Christianity is an unassuming structure in the old city of Jerusalem. It is known by various names, as the Church of the Resurrection in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Given the church’s significance to the Christian world, surprisingly little is known about the social organization of its custodianship.

The church is a rare example of a sanctuary that is managed by multiple denominations. The responsibility is divided among six groups that see themselves as representing early Christian communities: Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox from Egypt, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and the Franciscan Order representing the Roman Catholics. Each prays in its own ancient language and converses in the tongue of its respective ethnic group. Communications across the groups are in Arabic and English. To an outside observer this is a wonderfully cosmopolitan community with a shared belief that the sanctuary is the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Yet, conflict has been the defining feature of their social relations since the early Christian centuries.

What binds them inextricably together into a relationship of conflict is that they all want to be the church’s guardians. This responsibility has historically included facilitating access for visitors, conducting prayers and ritual events, as well as cleaning and maintenance. These activities are scheduled round the clock. Throughout the night the church is closed to visitors. This allows the clergy inside to conduct prayers at the tomb, each following its own ritual traditions. Rather than bringing them closer together, these daily responsibilities in effect continuously reinforce their differences and the boundaries between them.

No formal law applies to protect their claims and no ownership documents exist. What governs their relations is a common understanding that each of the six groups has certain rights and privileges to the church as determined by the daily routine to which each group has been adhering in the past. Any changes to the routine require an agreement of all parties involved.  Their mutual security depends on their ability to enforce one another’s compliance to these rules.

When one group deviates from the routine, others must react to express their discontent because if they don’t, the party breaching the tradition will create a new status quo. Such situations can have dire consequences so they require vigilance and deep familiarity with one another’s worldviews, personalities, and intentions. Was the breach an accident or was it intentional?  If it turns out to be an accident, the mistake is swiftly corrected, the party at fault apologizes, and all goes back to the routine. But when it is concluded that the breach was intentional, a conflict erupts that can linger for decades, even centuries.

One ingenious solution to prevent an explosion that would ensue if one group were tempted to lock the others out of the church was invented centuries ago and is a true example of thinking outside the box. The daily opening and closing of the church was entrusted to two prominent Muslim families in Jerusalem.  In the evening, one brings the key while the other locks the door. In the morning the process is reversed. The rationale, as the clergy explain it, is quite simple. As Muslims, these two families are sure to never seek rights to the church and can be trusted to carry out the responsibilities according to the agreement. By most accounts, this has worked since the 12th century.

Important agreements can be reached even today. After acknowledging for six decades that the chapel over Christ’s tomb is in need of repair, the restoration was finally allowed to begin several months ago. When the marble slab covering the tomb was removed, another slab was discovered underneath. This one has a cross engraving and it looks to have been laid over what the radar tests indicate to be a cave. As is the practice in the Holy Land, archaeologists and theologians are now combining forces to examine the data and determine how they corroborate the biblical texts. It is left to sociologists to explain how the guardians of Christ’s tomb have been navigating their insurmountable theological and cultural differences to be able to co-exist in this place.

Vida Bajc, a sociologist, is the author of “Surveilling and Securing the Olympics: From Tokyo 1964 to London 2012 and Beyond.” vida.bajc@gmail.com