The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a member of the triumvirate of Guardians
of the Christian Holy Places, has voiced grave fears over the threat of the
erosion of its historic and traditional rights in the Church of Nativity in
The rights and privileges that are the legacy of the Armenians
are indelibly inscribed within the tenets of a status quo that has been in place
since the Ottoman administration of the land. But recent developments in
Bethlehem, involving its sister Guardian, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate (with
the Latin Custodia forming the third member of the triumvirate), are threatening
to seriously impact on Armenian rights, church officials claim.
Patriarchate has lodged an urgent call for a return to the status quo that has
governed relations between the churches, and with governments, ever since its
promulgation in the 19th century.
The Guardians, as well as the dozen
other Christian denominations of the Holy Land, are bound by the tenets of the
set of agreements thrashed out by the Ottoman sultans with the aim of
safeguarding Christian rights and avoiding internecine clashes.
perfect, the status quo, outlined in a 1929 document titled “The Status Quo in
the Holy Places,” by L.A.G. Cust, an official of the British Mandate of
Palestine, seems to have served the Christians well over the
Departures from the spirit of the agreement are rare, and any
that do occur are mostly of a temporary nature, meant to accommodate a one-off
event, agreed to by the parties concerned. But according to the Armenians, there
have been some serious infractions recently, with unpalatable results.
impartial Western observers, the sweeping of a neighbor’s tile, or the movement
of a ladder from one part of a wall to another, may seem trivial in the cosmic
order of things, but to the owner of the tile or wall, in the troubled Holy
Land, the action is viewed as an unwarranted encroachment on its territorial
The Armenian Patriarchate says the latest breach concerns the
annual cleaning arrangements within the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, jointly
“owned” with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
CONFLICTS OVER the threat
of territorial encroachment have been a festering wound for the Armenians for
years, culminating in an incident in December 2007 when the Greeks unilaterally
“imposed” some amendments on the cleaning process.
The Armenians charge
that the Greeks had decided to move a ladder “three places” during the annual
cleaning of the church. As things have stood for years, the ladder is placed in
the (northern) Armenian section of the church, and would be used during the
cleaning process to reach the upper walls belonging to the Greeks.
Armenians promptly objected to this variation of the status quo, pointing out
that the ladder stays only in one designated place during the cleaning chore.
They also wanted to be around when the Greeks start their cleaning.
Greeks were adamant and a scuffle broke out, captured graphically on
The next year, to avoid a recurrence of the clashes, Palestinian
Authority Minister for Christian Affairs Ziad Bandak brought the two sides to
the negotiating table and succeeded in hammering out an agreement allowing the
ladder to be moved twice only.
The Armenians considered the change a
“one-off” to cover the 2008 annual cleaning arrangements only, and said it
should in no way be construed as a permanent amendment to the standing protocols
of the status quo.
The Greeks, supported by the Palestinian Authority,
whose Presidential Committee for the Christians is composed overwhelmingly of
Orthodox Greeks, with not a single Armenian aboard (the Armenians point out),
thought otherwise, and attempted to clean the Armenian section of the church as
well, and another scuffle broke out, necessitating police
The Armenians considered the Greek move null and void and
demanded a reinstitution of the status quo but despite official protestations to
PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the next three years saw a repetition of the same
Reinstitution would mean that both churches begin the cleaning
“We are against being forbidden to enter the
church while the Greeks start cleaning, because that gives the Greeks a
‘superiority’ over the holy site when we are equal partners in its ownership,” a
church official said.
“We have complained repeatedly against this breach
of the status quo, but to no avail,” he added.
The PA response has been
that the matter is one for the two Patriarchates to settle, with committee
president Hanna Amireh declaring: “The same arrangements which were reached last
year are the most suitable arrangement for this year too.”
have urged the PA to reconsider, pointing out that the annual cleaning the year
before had ended with a clash between the Armenians and Greeks, and expressed
doubt this was a “most suitable arrangement.”
Two weeks ago, the most
senior Armenian church official in Jerusalem, Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, met
with Amireh and reminded him that the Greek cleaning “re-arrangement” was
intended for that year only, and that to continue it would be “a breach of the
centuries-old status quo and must be cancelled, that the Armenians stand firm on
their historical rights and shall never sacrifice their centuries-old rights in
favor of the Greeks.”
In a last-ditch attempt to paper over their
differences, representatives of the Armenian and Greek Patriarchates met in
Bethlehem earlier this month with Amireh, but despite Armenian insistence on a
return to the status quo and cancellation of the one-off arrangement of 2008,
the Greeks refused to give ground, the Armenians say.
declared that the decision of the PA “shall remain unchanged and the Armenians
must submit to the Authority’s decision,” warning it will “take all measures
against those who dare to cause any kind of clash,” this correspondent was
The Armenian reaction was swift. It vociferously objected to
Amireh’s declaration, calling it “an unprecedented injustice against the
Armenian Patriarchate,” and cast doubt on the impartiality of the
“The Armenian Patriarchate is seriously concerned about its
historical rights in the Nativity Church,” church sources said, adding that it
feared this year’s annual cleaning of the church (scheduled for January 2),
“which is as sacred service to us as one of the solemn ceremonies in the Holy
Places,” may be denied to the Armenians, “who for centuries have had the right
of equally sharing in the Holy Places of Christendom together with the Greek
The writer was born in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter in 1938.
He has worked for press organizations and as the press officer for the Armenian
Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He lives in Australia.