When ecumenical cooperation and peace take off

I could hear Greek, Arabic, Italian, Armenian, English and other languages around me.

April 3, 2017 21:57
4 minute read.
Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem

A ceremony held at the Holy Sepulchre after restoration. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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On Tuesday March 22, Jerusalem celebrated the inauguration of the restored aedicule that adorns the tomb believed to be that of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Jaffa Gate was full of black limousines, police and security. The market crowds were not shopping and bargaining, but standing and photographing the colorful processions walking down the market steps on their way to the church.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in the fourth century by Constantine the Great in what is today the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church complex originally consisted of an enormous basilica, a courtyard and the rotunda, built around the tomb.

The church was heavily damaged in 1009 by the Fatimid conquerors. It was reconstructed by the Byzantines in 1048, and later in the mid-twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

The aedicule was built over the tomb in the nineteenth century after an earlier structure was damaged by the collapse of the rotunda roof. In the 1940s the aedicule was braced with iron girders due to subsequent deterioration. The team of the National Technical University of Athens, headed by Prof. Antonia Moropoulou, that restored the aedicule, removed the iron scaffolding and strengthened and cleaned the structure from foundation to roof.

I arrived at the Old City at 9:30 a.m. It was unusual to walk through an Old City market empty of people, as I joined a procession of Armenian dignitaries – our paths met at the entrance to the market out of pure coincidence – allowing me to join the festive entourage and feel like a VIP for a moment in the city.

The front plaza of the church was buzzing with visitors and the ringing of bells. I entered the church. The rotunda was already full of dignitaries and clergy. The usual crowds of pilgrims were replaced by press photographers and amateurs with smartphones, men in festive religious costumes and designer suits. I could hear Greek, Arabic, Italian, Armenian, English and other languages around me. I raised my eyes to the restored aedicule, shining under the rotunda dome skylight. There was no doubt that this was a special occasion.

The excitement escalated as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople entered the church, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and as the ceremony started the choirs filled the space with music.

The Greek Orthodox Church, although historically the primary patron of the site, shares the church in a very complex status quo with the Latin and Armenian churches.

The tension among them is legendary.

One only has to look over the main gate of the church to see a ladder that has been kept in place since 1853 due to a dispute between denominations.

The $3.5 million restoration, covered by international donations, including donations from the World Monuments Fund and King Abdullah of Jordan, not only strengthened the aedicule, but also the cooperation of the three rival patrons of the church. Cooperation started in the 1960s over needed restoration projects, some since completed and others still under way. The restoration of the aedicule is an additional manifestation of the benefits of cooperation.

For cooperation to emerge, time is a key factor. According to Robert Axelrod, a professor at University of Michigan and author of The Evolution of Cooperation, the logic is simple: if two egoists play a game once, both are tempted to choose defection – to beat their opponent and take a bigger share. But, if the game is played an indefinite number of times, and the players cannot be sure when the last interaction between them will take place (so that one can defect), both players have an interest in reciprocity, to earn them maximum points. This indefinite number of interactions is a condition for cooperation to emerge. This seems to be the secret discovered by those sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Axelrod called it “Tit for Tat”: each player emulates the previous player’s move: if one defects, one wins, the other loses. If one reciprocates, then the other imitates and cooperation unfolds in perpetuity enabling both players to accumulate maximum points and benefits.

What theory could be more appropriate for an ancient site in an eternal city? At their speech, the leaders of the three churches acknowledged the benefits of this cooperation.

Patriarch Theophilos, for example, said that the model of cooperation among the three Christian faiths “offers future generations hope and spiritual leadership” sending out a global message of “ecumenical significance for the entire human family, as the restoration is not only a gift to our city but to the whole world.”

The Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian spoke about a “manhood of love, based on the teaching of Jesus” while the Latin Apostolic administrator Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa spoke about the “common aspirations of the three Churches realizing that the new model of relationship is good for us” and that “we will continue jointly to improve our relationships.”

With such an important ecumenical message of cooperation coming out from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the religious communities now need to find how to emanate and amplify this message, from the Holy City to the world. If three rival communities can cooperate and benefit, it is possible for cooperation to thrive in Jerusalem. Hope for peace and coexistence in the Middle East is regained, which can serve as a model for cooperation and peace in the world.

The author is a Greek-Israeli architect and the founding chairman of NGO EcoWeek.

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