Rivalries between competing churches are on the verge of erupting into violence, a senior Israel Police officer told The Jerusalem Post.
Only police intervention prevents the already-tense situation from escalating into total mayhem within the Israeli Christian community, the officers said.
"Today the police maintain the status quo between the different churches and sects," said Dep.-Cmdr. Asher Ben-Atrzi, head of the Israel Police Interpol and Foreign Liaison Section.
In Israel today, Ben-Artzi said, there were 18 different churches and four main denominations, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical. Ben-Artzi is also in charge of relations with church heads and deals with the various church bureaucratic difficulties in addition to maintaining peace and quiet between the different groups.
"The churches fight all the time among one another," he said giving as an example the annual Easter service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City. Since the Crusades, three major denominations have controlled the church, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and (Latin) Roman Catholic, with the rights and privileges of all of the communities protected by the Status Quo of the Holy Places set up in 1852.
According to Ben-Artzi, almost every year a dispute erupts between the Armenians and the Greeks over who enters the cave where Jesus is believed to be buried first. The different denominations also argue over prayer times. "The police really need to be hands on at the churches," he explained, "to prevent them from arguing and fighting."
In related news, President Moshe Katsav angered the newly appointed Greek patriarch of the Holy Land this week by inviting both him and his predecessor, who was deposed for allegedly leasing church property to Jews, to a state Christmas party.
The patriarch, Theofilos III, has announced that he will not attend the annual party in protest of the invitation which addressed him as a mere "bishop" and not as the new patriarch.
The previous patriarch, Irineos I, was ousted in May amid allegations he leased property in Jerusalem's Old City to a Jewish group. Israel has not recognized Irineos's removal nor the appointment of Theofilos.
Katsav's political adviser Avi Granot said the decision by the president's office to invite both was in line with Israeli government policy not to recognize the deposition of Irineos. "We respect all church leaders, patriarchs and bishops alike," Granot said.
AP contributed to this report.