Pope to hold unity meet at Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Historic site in Jerusalem’s Old City has been a flashpoint of rivalry between Christian denominations for centuries

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Anton Croos, Wikimedia Commons)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Anton Croos, Wikimedia Commons)

JERUSALEM (AP) –€” Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians could not have chosen a more fitting meeting place to promote Christian unity on Sunday than the Jerusalem holy site where their churches’ centuries-old rivalries and machinations play out every day.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the pope will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in the central event of his Holy Land trip, marks the spot where Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

A 12th-century building sitting on 4th-century remains, it is one of the world’s oldest churches and the only place where six Christian denominations practice their faith at the same site. To a visitor, its dark, medieval caverns can seem to be a chaotic jumble of clergymen, chapels and candles.

But invisible border lines run through the building, carving out property rights from the roof all the way down to the underground plumbing, and every lamp, column and manhole in between. Scuffles erupt about twice a year when monks overstep their bounds.

“It’s kind of scandalous,” said the Rev. Juan Solana, a Vatican envoy in Jerusalem, who said he considered the Holy Sepulchre Christianity’s most important site. “The wounds of the church are very much evident there.”

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the Holy Land, which begins Saturday, is centered on trying to heal those wounds. The ecumenical meeting of Christian patriarchs and spiritual leaders in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s historic 1964 meeting in Jerusalem with Patriarch Athenagoras, the then-spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. That meeting ended 900 years of estrangement between the churches.

The summit is aimed at bridging rifts between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Vatican officials say. The denominations differ on theology and liturgy, and they celebrate Christmas and other holidays on different days, posing dilemmas for numerous Catholic-Orthodox mixed couples in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

The Rev. David Neuhaus, a Catholic official in Jerusalem, lowered expectations, saying it was unclear if religious leaders would even issue a joint statement after the meeting. But he said the meeting would push the churches to gradually advance relations.

“We are expecting something practical to come out” of the summit, Neuhaus said.

When it comes to the church they’ll meet in, old animosities die hard.

Territorial fights have gone on at the Holy Sepulcher for centuries, with various rulers of the Holy Land transferring property rights back and forth to their favored sects.

In 1852, the Ottoman authorities governing the Holy Land decreed the church’s power-sharing arrangements could not be changed. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian clergy govern the Sepulcher building, with lesser rights accorded to Copts, Assyrians and Ethiopians.

The status quo was not written down until 1929, when the British took control of the Holy Land and British officer Lionel George Archer Cust sat in the church and documented what he saw. His document, still followed today, outlines who gets to rings the bells first, who can hang paintings in another’s chapel, who cleans the staircase and a dizzying list of other rules.

Cust’s document left some gray areas, like what goes on inside the Edicule, the shrine encasing the tomb, during the annual Feast of the Cross. In 2008, Armenian and Greek clergy threw punches after the Armenians accused a Greek monk of overstepping his bounds by entering the sanctum during the ceremony. That was the last major skirmish inside the church.

Christian denominations also fight over who gets the “privilege” to pay for restorations and cleaning. This year, the Israeli government stepped in and paid to replace a bumpy chapel floor because Syrian and Armenian Orthodox clergy both claimed rights to the floor and both refused to let the other pay. A few years ago, it took seven weeks of negotiations for the church’s denominations to agree on new toilets.

Territory still trumps aesthetics in the church.

Franciscan Catholics prop up an enormous steel step ladder near the church’s main entrance for three months each year between Lent and the feast of Corpus Christi, because the status quo pact allows them to do so to light high-hanging oil lamps –€” even though the oil lamps haven’t been there since 1938.

Like a flag, the ladder stands there to assert sovereignty. It will still be there when the pope and Orthodox spiritual leader arrive.

“You would think they would have moved a big, ugly-looking ladder,” said Anna Koulouris, a communications adviser with the rival Greek Orthodox church.

But ladders are a popular symbol of control at the Holy Sepulcher. A short wooden ladder, which Armenian clergy claim, has been leaning on the balcony above the church’s entrance likely since the early 19th century.

Though they adamantly stick to the status quo, none of the three major denominations that zealously govern the Holy Sepulcher enjoy the arrangement.

“We are grown-ups. We should be able to sit down and finalize the whole thing,” said the Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, the Armenian superior of the Holy Sepulcher.

“The amount of energy that’s required to maintain it is counterproductive,” said Father Athanasius Macora, a Texas native and Franciscan monk who sits on an inter-church commission that negotiates disputes at the Holy Sepulcher.

“It’s very silly. We laugh about it,” Koulouris said.

But in preparing the big meeting Sunday with the pope and Orthodox spiritual patriarch, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches say they’re getting along well.

“The cooperation has been good,” Father Athanasius said. “It’s in both of our interests.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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