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 Bethlehem.

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.

The 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.

While not 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 centuries.

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.

To 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 rights.

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.

The 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.

The Greeks were adamant and a scuffle broke out, captured graphically on YouTube.

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 intervention.

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 scenario.

Reinstitution would mean that both churches begin the cleaning operation simultaneously.

“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.”

The Armenians 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.

Meanwhile, Amireh 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 told.

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 committee.

“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 Orthodox.”

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.

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