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Christian sects drop their differences, and their fists, to restore Jesus’s tomb

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The Aedicule at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in need of repairsCREDIT: GALI TIBBONGALI TIBBON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem holy site where Jesus is thought have been crucified, is as often the scene of Christian rivalry as brotherly love.

Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests jostle for space under its great dome, sing during each other’s prayers andoccasionally engage in sectarian fist fights.

But the three communities have set aside their differences for a task all can agree is of critical importance: restoring the crumbling structure of Jesus’s tomb.

At the heart of the church is the Aedicule, a towering shrine built on what is said to be the spot where Jesus was buried before rising from the dead three days later.

Jesus tomb
Christian worshippers queue to visit the Tomb of Christ CREDIT: THOMAS COEXTHOMAS COEX/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

Pilgrims and tourists endure longs queues to spend a couple of moments in the candle-lit chamber inside the shrine and all three communities focus rituals around it.   The shrine’s current structure was built in 1810 after a fire ravaged the church but the 200-year-old mortar that hold its marble slabs together is beginning to give way.

At the urging of the Israeli government, which did not want to test whether tourists crushed by falling marble would eventually be resurrected, the Orthodox initiated negotiations with the other two groups.

The talks were delicate but led to an agreement in late March with all three sides paying towards the cost.  The agreement was first reported by the New York Times.

“The discussions were fascinating but I can tell you no more,” laughed Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at Athen’s National Technical University who is overseeing the restoration. “This is a scientific and technical challenge but it is also, of course, a political and a cultural challenge.”

The shrine was rocked by an earthquake in 1927 and twenty years later the British authorities clamped it in iron girders to prevent it from collapsing.

This is the first restorative work since then and Prof Moropoulou said the British bars could be removed after the project is finished early next year.

Jerusalem history is littered with examples of un-Christian behaviour at one of Christianity’s holiest sites.

On Good Friday 1846, the Orthodox and Catholics got into an argument over who would hold their service first. Angry words escalated into priests fighting with candlesticks, crucifixes and eventually pistols smuggled into the church.

The last fight was in 2008, when the Armenians and the Orthodox traded blows during an Armenian feast. Israeli police eventually waded into melee and broke up the fighting.

VIDEO EMBED: Brawl erupts in holy Jerusalem sitePlay!02:04

 

Since then relations have improved. “They’re ok but there are still some problems,” said Father Athanasius Macora, a Catholic official. “They’re certainly better now than they were 50 or 100 years ago.”

The three major communities, as well as three smaller ones consisting of Ethiopians, Syrians and Copts, co-exist with the help of small compromises.

For example, the keys to the church are in the hands of two of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian Muslim families who open and close its heavy doors each day.

The church is expected to stay open during the restoration project pilgrims will still be able to visit the shrine even as its marble slabs are being removed and put back.

Work is scheduled to begin after the Orthodox Easter on May 1 and continue for about eight months.

If all goes well the three groups may move on to another joint project: repairing the church’s broken and uneven floors.

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This entry was posted on April 9, 2016 by and tagged , , .

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