Sacred and profane collide in two new films on Church of the Holy Sepulchre
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'It's my spiritual country and I want to defend it. Period'

Sacred and profane collide in two new films on Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Even as church reopens from coronavirus closure, two documentaries portray complex modern struggles at site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Fr. Samuel Aghoyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (David Stragmeister)
    Fr. Samuel Aghoyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (David Stragmeister)
  • Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)
    Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)
  • Woman at the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as seen in 'Holy Fire" documentary film. (Cistern Films)
    Woman at the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as seen in 'Holy Fire" documentary film. (Cistern Films)
  • Israel police liaison officer for Christian communities Johnny Kassabri shakes hands with Fr. Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)
    Israel police liaison officer for Christian communities Johnny Kassabri shakes hands with Fr. Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)
  • Closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at night. (Yoram Millo)
    Closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at night. (Yoram Millo)
  • Keeper of the key Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini (front row left) and gatekeeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh (front row second from right) on their way to open the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Yoram Millo)
    Keeper of the key Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini (front row left) and gatekeeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh (front row second from right) on their way to open the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Yoram Millo)
  • Worshippers at Jerusalem Old City's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, May 26, 2020. (courtesy)
    Worshippers at Jerusalem Old City's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, May 26, 2020. (courtesy)

After a two-month closure due to COVID-19, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem reopened to worshipers on Sunday. The church, a warren-like grouping of sanctuaries belonging to different Christian denominations, was erected beginning in the 4th century upon the site where believers and many archaeologists hold that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected

Usually mobbed by thousands of pilgrims a day, currently only 50 visitors are allowed entrance under its roof at a time.

This most sacred site in Christendom was shuttered ahead of Orthodox Easter week this past March for the first time since 1349, when the Black Death ravaged large parts of the world. Easter week is a busy and joyful period for the Holy Land’s local Christian population, and for tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world.

Three churches — the Greek Orthodox, the Latin (Roman Catholic), and the Armenian Apostolic (in order of precedence) — own the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church have no property within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but they have rights to worship and celebrate within it. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church once had a much more prominent position, but lost it in the 18th century. Its community has been relegated to the roof of the church.

At Jerusalem Old City’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Franciscans conduct morning mass, May 26, 2020. (courtesy)

With travel restrictions still enforced, this year visitors may not be able to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, two new films on the church and its history — released in April to coincide with the Easter holiday — are the next best thing. A documentary short titled “Holy Fire” is available for online streaming, and the feature-length film “The Church” was broadcast for the holiday on TV channels in a variety of countries. The creators of both films anticipate they will screen at film festivals once the pandemic is over.

The two documentaries complement one another, with each focusing a different lens on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s spiritual and religious aspects, as well as its unavoidably charged political atmosphere.

‘Holy Fire’s spark

“Holy Fire” takes its title from the annual ceremony that takes place every year at two o’clock in the afternoon on Great Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter. Tradition holds that since at least the fourth century CE, when the church was initially built, fire (symbolizing Jesus’s resurrection) miraculously comes from inside the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus’s tomb).

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch circles the tomb and then enters it, emerging with candles lit by the holy fire. The fire is passed around to the candles of the thousands of the devoted crammed into the church. Designated runners whisk off flames to be flown to various corners in the Orthodox Christian world (in the past, the flames made their way by camel and steamboat). This year, only a few clergymen were able to participate in the ceremony, and the holy fire left Israel on empty planes that were standing by at the airport.

Filmmakers Reuben Browning and Brittany Browning filmed the scene in 2016.

Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Easter 2016, as seen in ‘Holy Fire” documentary film. (Cistern Films)

“It was so crowded, chaotic and claustrophobic. We were standing there for two to three hours before the bells started ringing and the fire emerged. I thought I was going to pass out,” Reuben Browning said.

“The light slowly made its way to us and we could see the euphoria on people’s faces. We were surrounded by pilgrims from around the world and we could feel the spiritual excitement,” he said.

The Brownings are siblings who grew up in Israel with American parents who worked for a Protestant church in Nazareth and Jerusalem. Brittany, 44, still lives in Jerusalem and is an educator, social work student, and first-time filmmaker. Reuben, 37, is a Bloomington, Indiana-based documentary film director and producer at the local PBS station.

Reuben and Brittany Browning (courtesy)

They originally created a full-length documentary that included significant history about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Jerusalem. However, they decided to cut it down to about 30 minutes and focus primarily on the Holy Fire ceremony, and on the role the church plays in the lives of the local Christian community.

“We wanted to emphasize that Christianity is rooted in the Middle East. Americans don’t realize there is a local, indigenous Arab Christian community. I wanted to tell their story,” Reuben Browning said.

In the film, Salim Munayer, a professor at Bethlehem Bible College, expresses this idea more pointedly. He says that Western Christians, especially evangelicals, don’t take Eastern Christians seriously, or even consider them Christians. He laments that visiting Christians from Western countries don’t take the time to interact with the local Christian community.

“To them, we are just bells and incense,” said Munayer. He went a step further, comparing Western Christians’ regard for Eastern Christians to how Muslims treat the Christian minority in the Middle East (which is not well, to say the least.)

Never-ending power struggles

Fr. Samuel Aghoyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (David Stragmeister)

Fr. Samuel Aghoyan, Superior at the Armenian Monastery at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, appears in “Holy Fire” and sets the record straight about the flame that emerges from the tomb.

“In the old days, it happened miraculously that light came from heaven and lit the candles themselves, but nowadays it doesn’t happen. At least I didn’t see it happening. So, we make sure that we should have a lighter over there. No light comes from heaven today,” says Aghoyan.

The charismatic Aghoyan’s pragmatism and skepticism are also prominently on display in Anat Tel‘s 52-minute film “The Church.” Aghoyan anchors the film as its narrator, pulling back the curtain to let us see that not everything that goes on at the Holy Sepulchre is holy. The monk has just about seen it all since arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1956 as a boy.

The various denominations rooted in different countries and cultures that have coexisted at the site for centuries are in a never-ending struggle over rights, territory, power and control of the church and all of Orthodox Christianity.

“If you don’t keep what is yours both in terms of rights and territories, and vigilantly protect it, others will take it from you… It’s my spiritual country and I want to defend it. Period,” says Aghoyan.

Israel police liaison officer for Christian communities Johnny Kassabri shakes hands with Fr. Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)

Aghoyan raises the example of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. “They used to have many rights and dedicated spaces inside the church. Today they don’t have any. Not even one inch,” Aghoyan explains.

Even the ancient Deir es-Sultan monastery the Ethiopians occupy on the roof is disputed territory. The Copts claim it as theirs.

“We have our rights. It is called ‘Deir es-Sultan.’ Sultan — this is the name of the Egyptian ruler. From the name, we know this is for us and not the Ethiopians. They don’t have a name like that in their tradition,” claims Coptic leader Fr. Antonius.

Aghoyan says the various denominations gave Jerusalem’s conquerors and rulers bribes throughout history to gain more space and rights within the church. “We steal things from each other,” he said.

Israel Police liaison office for Christian communities Johnny Kassabri (center). behind Greek Orthodox patriarch as he emerges from Jesus’s tomb, during Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Yoram Millo)

“It’s not Christian what we do or say sometimes. But hey, well that’s life,” Aghoyan deadpans.

A fragile balance maintained by what is known as the “status quo” prevents all hell from breaking loose at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is a historic arrangement that lays out each church’s rights and responsibilities at the holy site. The modern version of the status quo, established during Ottoman rule in 1853, is still holding — save for several violent brawls between the groups.

Anat Tel (courtesy)

In “The Church,” the Jewish Israeli Tel, 41, weaves her film from three strands related to the status quo. During the film, Aghoyan explains how the whole things works, down to minutia such as how a column separating the dedicated spaces of two denominations must be divided exactly down the middle, and the rule that no denomination may clean its lanterns hanging over the Stone of Unction (the slab where it believed that Jesus was laid out to be anointed before burial) without the other denominations present.

We are introduced to the affable Johnny Kassabri — Israel Police’s liaison officer for Christian communities — whose job is to keep the peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A Christian Arab from Nazareth, he navigates the disagreements between the denominations, which must be worked out between or among them. Kassabri is there to support these efforts, but the police are not allowed into the church unless invited to mediate disputes or provide security and crowd control.

I’ve learned one thing here in the Old City: patience, and more patience

“The status quo is the grayest area in the Christian world… Every problem that comes up between two denominations over control, possession, power, sovereignty. All those things. I’ve learned one thing here in the Old City: patience, and more patience. That is a challenge in and of itself,” Kassabri says.

Keeper of the key Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini (front row left) and gatekeeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh (front row second from right) on their way to open the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Yoram Millo)

Tel includes the story that initially intrigued her about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — that of Jerusalem’s two most prominent Muslim families who have been in charge  of locking and unlocking the church’s doors every day for tens of generations according to an arrangement devised by Saladin in the 12th century, after he conquering Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini and Wajeeh Nuseibeh are the descendants currently serving as keeper of the key and gatekeeper, respectively.

Tel, who spent several years working on “The Church” — including filming there three times at night, and during the Holy Fire ceremony — said she cannot imagine what the place was like closed and empty this Easter.

“I wonder if the monks were lonely. Or maybe they found it special. In any case, it must have been strange,” said Tel.

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