We pray for Christian unity, but in all honesty, while hatreds have thankfully declined, separation is still a gnawing reality. I’m reminded of this each time I visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, regarded as the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried and where the resurrection took place.
So it’s particularly tragic that monks from various factions have made coming to blows over who owns the place something of, well, a bad habit.
In 2008, the police arrested two clergymen who were punching and kicking each other as part of a brawl between the Armenian and Greek Orthodox contingents in the church. Four years earlier, during an Orthodox festival, a door to the Roman Catholic chapel was left open, almost certainly by mistake. The open door was regarded as disrespectful, and a fight ensued. Yet another brawl occurred during a Palm Sunday service when a Greek monk was thrown out of the church by rival clergy. When the Israeli police arrived, they were attacked by everyone present (a rare instance of Christian unity!).
Ancient, dark and layered in shrines and compartments, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is nothing like a conventional church and more a building constructed piecemeal over what was originally an outdoor execution site and a tomb built into a cave. Western pilgrims tend to be shocked by the overwhelming gaudiness, the sheer confusion of the place.
But this is still the centre of Christianity, surviving in the middle of a place dominated by Islam for more than a thousand years. That it exists at all is a miracle; that it is a magnet for dispute is almost inevitable.
Six denominations control the church, and their internecine disputes can be absurd to the point of hilarity. A ladder that was put over an entrance in the 18th century remains there today because the sects cannot agree on who has the authority to touch it.
Some of these groups are aggressively nationalist and still fighting battles that have more to do with geopolitical struggles than with the teachings of Christ. Many evangelicals prefer to think of the Garden Tomb, in another part of the city, as the authentic place of the crucifixion. It isn’t, but it looks like it should be. And what is significant, of course, is that Jesus is in neither of these places. He is risen indeed.
I prefer to recall one of my many visits to this church during the height of the 2006 war in Lebanon. I sat down next to a French Franciscan priest, and we communicated in broken English, French and Hebrew. I asked him if he still had hope that Christians, and for that matter Muslims and Jews, could eventually find resolution and peace. “Of course,” he answered. “It’s why I am here, why I’m a priest and why I’m a Christian.” Quite so.
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.
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