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Unity in the Divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre
JERUSALEM – There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.
The “immovable ladder,” as its known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone – no one knows who – left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.
“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh.
Isidoris, with his bushy black beard, is the Greek Orthodox Superior of the Holy Sepulchre Church. He represents one of the three main denominations that claim ownership of the land. The others are the Catholic Church, represented by the Franciscan order, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are also three more groups that also claim rights of usage: the Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.
The ladder is perhaps the most visible indicator of historic tensions between churches at the Holy Sepulchre. Asked if the denominations normally get on Isidoris replied, “Yes,” then hesitated and added, “not always, sometimes we have troubles.”
But recently the churches have put their differences aside in an effort to present a united front. In February, in a dramatic act of protest against the Israeli government’s tax plan, the various denominational leaders agreed to shutter the doors of the church, one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist sites. By bucking their usual trend of reluctant cooperation, the churches have sent a strong message to the Israeli government: We won’t have our affairs meddled in!
Church leaders perceived the Israelis as launching a two-pronged attack on their finances. First, a new tax policy to levy municipality taxes was proposed that would have incurred payments on commercial activities such as hotels and other businesses run by churches. Second, a new law would have allowed the government to expropriate church properties sold since 2010.
Jerusalem’s Christian community galvanized in opposition to the proposed changes and some see the proposed taxes as an existential threat. According to a Franciscan Friar who did not wish to be named (as his current role at the Holy Sepulchre prevents him from talking to press), the Church views the taxes as an encroachment on Christians in Jerusalem.
"The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes"
“Israel will start with a tax on mercantile activities and then will go on to push the church out,” he said.
The government quickly backed down in response to the protest. Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, suspended the tax plan and a debate on the property bill has been pushed back, with Israeli officials saying a committee will look into it. After three days, the church reopened but its closure is still a topic of discussion within the hallowed walkways of the Via Dolorosa.
“The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes,” said a priest from the Coptic Church, lingering by the small archway, marked only by a faded bronze plaque, which leads from the narrow streets of the Old City into the courtyard of the church.
He said there are no substantial problems between the churches and if there are disputes, “it’s a matter of organization.” The organization of the Holy Sepulchre is a delicate choreography based on ancient customs and precedent set during the British mandate of the early twentieth century.
“In Jerusalem what is most crucial is the status quo,” said Dr. Avital Heyman-Aranne, an interdisciplinary researcher based in Jerusalem who was hosting a tour of church one weekend this spring soon after the church had reopened.
The Holy Sepulchre beats with the syncopated rhythm of worship and ceremony established by this status quo. It may seem chaotic, but each group gets its space to perform the rituals that are important to it. On a recent Sunday, Armenian pilgrims swarmed to the light of a tall iron candleholder in the Armenian section, between the entrance and the site of Jesus’ tomb. Dozens of candles, drooping heavily with wax, burned a bright yellow fire. The pilgrims each clutched their bundle of 33 beeswax tapered candles, thin like breadsticks, bought from the nearby souk. They brought their own bundles to light, extinguish and take home.
They collected the Holy Fire of the Holy Sepulchre, a religious symbol of the miracle believed to occur each year around Easter. On Holy Saturday, preceding the Orthodox Easter, it is believed that a Holy Fire spontaneously combusts inside the marble tomb of Jesus’ resurrection. Huddled just feet away from this site, the pilgrims earnestly lit their candles, hoping to carry the spirit of this fire and Christ their savior with them. The Greek airline Aegean Air transports fire from the flame back to Greece on three specially scheduled flights each year, according to a representative.
As the pilgrims shoved and elbowed each other to get closer, a procession of Armenian priests rushed past chanting. Those lined up to visit inside the tomb were pushed aside and a priest in long robes cleared the path. It was time for the Franciscans to make their procession. As they do, the path cleared on the other side of the tomb to usher in the Coptic monk who blessed those that entered the crypt where Jesus’ head is said to have laid.
The afternoon continued in this manner, a constant rumble of religious fervor, of prayer and throat-catching incense and liturgical song. Various Christian rituals were performed alongside each other, representing the customs of each denomination - rushing parallel to each other, like airplanes narrowly avoiding each other’s flight path.
Sitting on a low wooden bench in the entrance, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, 69, oversaw it all. Nuseibeh is charged with unlocking the Holy Sepulchre’s door each morning. It’s a tradition he claims his family has upheld since the seventh century.
According to the Nuseibeh family website, the keys to the Holy Sepulchre were placed in their custody in the wake of the Arab-Islamic capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Omar. After the crusades, they say they were entrusted with keeping the peace on this holy site in perpetuity. According to Nuseibeh, his job is vital so as “to be neutral between the Christians.”
“Nobody is allowed to open, only me,” he said and took the heavy lock down from the door to pose for a photograph.
Nuseibeh is stout with wispy gray hair and a moustache. He wore a suit and seemed to like being photographed. On his phone are saved images of his interactions with world leaders and celebrities. He has met Superman, President Trump, and the Pope, just to name a few. His favorite President was Jimmy Carter, “he is very simple and quiet and he wants to hear and to talk,” Nuseibeh said.
But Nuseibeh is not the only Muslim to claim control of this site. Adeem Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, 53, is the Key Custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Nuseibeh opens the door, Al Husseini keeps the key. His family website too boasts an illustrious and ancient history and his business card features the ancient key - a long metal rod with a triangular point and circle on the end. It slots into the lock that Nuseibeh proudly guards.
Between the two of them, access to the Holy Sepulchre remains a clandestine activity. The Franciscan friar said there is a secret back entrance through the Greek Orthodox section of the church but getting through is a rare occurrence, especially since language barriers often hamper communication between the denominations.
The Friar, in his early thirties and imposing in his chocolate brown robes and closely shaven ginger beard, hails from California. He said the recent closure “wasn’t a difficult decision.” He claims the denominations are getting along better now as they see Israel threatening the rights of Christians in the Holy Land.
But as united as the churches might appear to be now, the intricacies of negotiation linger in everything from the turning of a key to the lighting of the candle and the movement of a ladder. Perhaps Dr. Theodossios Mitropoulos, doctor of conservation and restoration for the Greek Orthodox Church at the Holy Sepulchre describes it best.
“It’s very complicated, this monument,” he insists.
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