Past bloodshed and fighting put aside to restore Christianity's holiest sites

Monks of the different denominations that share the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher put aside friction to allow restoration at two of Christianity’s holiest sites.

An Italian team has been working for the past three years on repairing the wooden roof of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (photo credit: COURTESY / PIACENTI RESTAURATORI)
An Italian team has been working for the past three years on repairing the wooden roof of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity
THE NETWORK of specially designed scaffolding that has crisscrossed the inside of the Church of the Nativity for three years as an Italian team shored up the rotting 200-year-old wooden roof could, in a way, also be seen as shoring up relations among the monks of the different Christian traditions who maintain a presence there.
It was not that long ago that monks at the Church of the Nativity came to blows with broom sticks over who had the right to clean a certain stone on the floor of the ancient church in Bethlehem where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. But now, Giammarco Piacenti, CEO of Piacenti Restoration Center, which began restoration work on the church starting with the roof in April 2013, says he has seen nothing but cooperation among the monks as they put aside historic differences for the sake of the church.
“In the three years I have been here, I have had good collaboration with all the Churches,” he says.
What has been complicated on the other hand, he says, is getting the special materials needed from Europe to the Ashdod Port and from there to Bethlehem.
“I think all the Churches want to save this church because here Jesus was born,” says Piacenti. “It is important for all Christianity. For my professional life, this occasion is incredible.”
Monks have even accepted the fact that they will all have to deviate from the traditional paths each denomination takes through the church in order to accommodate the scaffolding that needs to be moved every so often, he says, and he has seen them greet each other in passing.
“I see many moments of ecumenicalism; the priests have good relations,” Piacenti says.
Meanwhile, visitors from around the world make the best of the situation as the church’s 50 columns are wrapped protectively and the scaffolding dominates its heights, covering up most of the walls.
There is no shortage of conflicts over holy sites in the Holy Land, and while Muslims and Jews have been fighting over who has more claim to the holiness and sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, the Christians have had their share of infamous squabbles over their own holy sites.
In the two holiest places for Christianity ‒ the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection ‒ door locks have been slyly changed, punches swung, and blood shed for reasons ranging from who can wash which stair or which stone, whether a monk guarding a site can move his chair into the shade, and if a 200-year-old ladder put in place from an earlier dispute can be moved.
The friction among the Churches began with the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099, which put the Catholic Church in charge of the sacred sites. Until then, the Eastern Orthodox churches already there had largely shared the sites peacefully. The tensions were exacerbated when the Ottomans gained control of the area in 1517 and decisions were made more often than not according to who could slip the most money to the Ottoman rulers.
Practically, the division of rights in the shared Christian holy sites, including both churches, is governed by the 1852 Status Quo agreement, which was finally put into place by the Ottomans. The agreement, which followed a particular heated altercation also involving foreign diplomats, preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of the various Christian holy sites as they were at that time.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, rights are shared between the Greek Orthodox, who have the largest and most impressive shrine right above the grotto where tradition holds that Jesus was born; the Franciscans, with their adjacent Church of St. Catherine from where Christmas Midnight Mass is broadcast; and the Armenians, who have a smaller chapel to the left of the Greek Orthodox. They all share prayer rights inside the grotto.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by six denominations, with the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans of the Catholic Church and the Armenian Orthodox Churches having a larger portion of the rights, including to the Edicule of the Tomb. The Copts, who have a small chapel at the back of the Edicule, the Syrian Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox, who are relegated to a small monastery on the roof of the church ‒ all have fewer rights inside the church.
As recently as 2008 in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and 2011 in the Church of the Nativity, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks came to blows over religious ceremonial procedures at the Edicule when the Greek Orthodox insisted they could keep one of their monks inside the structure during an Armenian religious ceremony, as well as something as seemingly trivial as who had the right to wash a certain stone on the floor of the Church of the Nativity with monks bashing each other with broomsticks to assert their rights.
In both cases, the outside sovereign, the Israeli police in Jerusalem and the Palestinian police in Bethlehem, had to intervene to stop the fighting.
So the cooperation among the churches enabling these historic restorations to take place in the two churches ‒ both a first in 200 years – is not to be taken lightly.
“The church has had many conflicts and schisms in its history; maybe this is a moment for the church to unite. We needed this critical moment to arrive for good results. The whole world saw the terrible situation in the church and many people had a change of mind and wanted to find a good solution. This is a good way, if not for now, then in the future,” Piacenti says.
“I am a positive man and I believe in peace, and in a good life, and good rapport between people. I think when the whole Church sees the good results of this restoration they will think more positively [about working together] in the future.”
In Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Greek experts from National Technical University of Athens have begun the restoration project on the Edicule of the Tomb, where, according to Christian tradition Jesus was laid to rest after his crucifixion. The structure has been held up by iron girders put up during the British Mandate.
Cleaning work has also already been undertaken on some of the mosaics in the church and work still needs to be done on the floor around the tomb, but that can’t begin until the restoration of the tomb is complete.
Meanwhile, Italian experts from the Piacenti Restoration Center have just completed restoration work on the Crusader-era mosaics decorating the walls of the Church of the Nativity. So, for the first time in 200 years, visitors will be able to appreciate the magnificent beauty of these stone, motherof- pearl, glass and gold leaf mosaics.
The mosaics, however, will only be unveiled to the public in about eight months after work on lighting, electricity and the fire alarm system is also finished.
In addition to the restoration of the mosaics and the roof, the project is slated to include restoration of the church’s columns which display paintings depicting saints from different countries, as well as the floor and floor mosaics.
“I think this restoration is an amazing opportunity; it is a great message for the entire world that we can start cooperation here from the Nativity and also from the Holy Sepulcher,” says Cecilia Sandroni, who is responsible for international PR and press for Piacenti. “It is a very important moment and a great call for peace, for working together. There is no coincidence. It is the will of God and you have to follow it.”
Though the collaboration is a first for the Church of the Nativity, this is not the first time the three main denominations in the Holy Sepulcher have come together for a restoration project. In 1997, they cooperated to restore and decorate the great dome above the tomb with the financial support of the late Catholic philanthropists George and Marie Doty.
In the current renovations, it took the intervention of the outside sovereign to get the ball rolling for the sorely needed restorations, says Franciscan Father Athanasius Macora, who is responsible for supervising the Status Quo on the part of the Franciscans and represents them at the inter-church commission that negotiates disputes at the Holy Sepulcher.
Macora points out that, according to the Status Quo, the role of the government is enforcement of the agreement and it can intervene only in matters of safety.
Father Samuel Aghoyan, Armenian Superior of the Holy Sepulcher says it was pressure from the Israeli government, which threatened to close the Edicule to the public because of safety concerns that finally forced the Churches to reach an agreement.
“But they were right,” admits Aghoyan. “So we agreed, and in a way it was a good thing they did, although we had talked about it many times. But there is no guarantee we will agree on other issues. It depends on the issue, how necessary and important it is, or if it can be delayed or not, if we can postpone it until the right time.
“Whether we like it or not, these issues have to be solved. We are Churches and we deal with each other as we have for thousands of years. Business has to go on. If given enough time, we will continue doing things together,” he adds, acknowledging that the notion of time within the church is sometimes different from that outside the church.
Much of the current cooperation has to do with simple personal chemistry, says Macora.
“There wasn’t any friction on this issue,” he says. “I don’t think it was anything extraordinary; on these bigger issues they need to work together. The relationship between [former Franciscan Custos] Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theopholis III and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian made it happen. If there had been another set of circumstances, it wouldn’t have happened. There was good chemistry between the three heads of the Churches and they agreed to it right away.”
Pizzaballa has since completed his term as Custos. He was recently made an archbishop by the Pope and appointed Apostolic Administrator for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The heads of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Franciscan Custody and the Armenian Church had first brought up the issue of a very conservative “consolidation” of the Edicule in 2000, before any of the three men were appointed.
Though many church-connected professionals have expressed concern over the structure since then, it took the shutting down of the tomb for four hours by the Israel Police in February 2015 because of safety concerns ‒ a blatant violation of the Status Quo according to Macora ‒ to get the Churches to act.
An agreement to carry out the work was finally signed in March 2016.
The project, which began in early June, is expected to take up to one year to complete and will include sorely needed damage repair and reinforcement of the tomb structure.
“The idea is to strengthen the structure and try to get it back to its pristine state,” says Macora. “It is important that the work goes well. If all goes well, it will enhance the relationship among the Churches; if it doesn’t go well, it will not help their relationship.”
The tomb is now surrounded by a white perimeter wall, but the work on its outer walls is taking place in the evening so pilgrims can continue to visit inside the tomb.
All three Churches are contributing toward the three-million-euro price tag for the project.
Jordan’s King Abdullah also made a personal contribution for the restoration. Until 1967, the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control and the king continues to play a role in the safeguarding of Christian and Muslim holy sites.
The current Edicule of the Tomb was built by the Greek Orthodox community in 1810 following a devastating fire there two years earlier.
“The tomb is the heart of the shrine. It is the most important reason why people are coming to visit the church and… everyone knew [the restoration] needed to be done,” says Macora. “There is no reason it could not be done. It is important that the work be done in a way, which respects the rights of other communities.”
In Bethlehem, about 1.55 million tiny mosaic pieces from the wall mosaic have been reviewed and restored. All are original pieces that previously had never been repaired.
Here, the three Churches came together under the auspices of a special Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church, formed by the Palestinian Authority in 2009 though talk of restoration had begun almost a decade earlier in 2000. The project was given more impetus by UNESCO’s declaration of the Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage Site in 2012. Through joint discussions, they reached a working agreement allowing the much-needed restorations on the Church of the Nativity to begin in September 2013.
The Church of the Nativity is one of Christianity’s first churches, and some say the oldest active church in the world.
The original basilica was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in 327 CE and completed in 339. It was destroyed in a Samaritan revolt in the 6th century, and rebuilt that same century by Justinian. It has withstood 15 earthquakes with no damage, and only the entrance, which was changed by the Crusaders, has had some structural damage.
Just 1,400 square feet (130 square meters) of mosaics remain from the original 21,528 sq.ft. (2,000 sq.m.) that adorned the walls, Piacenti noted, as he sifted through a pile of tiny square iridescent and multicolored mosaic pieces on a work table inside the church. The other mosaics were destroyed by rain that came through the leaking roof, Piacenti says.
The surviving mosaics portray different scenes in the life of Jesus and the Church including the Disbelief of Thomas, the Assumption and Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey.
One mosaic, Piacenti says, shows the date 1155 and the names Ephraim and Basilius, the presumed artisans who created the work. Some of the mosaics are missing pieces that will not be replaced, he says, based on the theory of restoration that there should be minimal intervention.
“Really, it is only conservation,” he says.
One special moment came when they cleared away plaster from the wall bordering the roof in the main section of the church and discovered a seventh mosaic of a golden angel in addition to the six they already knew existed. The angels’ arms direct pilgrims toward the grotto.
The faces of the angels were damaged during the Muslim Ottoman period by gunshots to the nose and so here the missing pieces have been replaced, says Piacenti.
“They were shot in the nose to destroy, to kill them,” Piacenti says. “We replaced the life of the angels, giving them a second life.”
Once funds are raised, the next stage of the project will include restoration of the church’s 50 pillars and the study and restoration of the floor and mosaics underneath.
While age-long theological and historical conflicts are yet to be resolved, observers today see a significant improvement in the relationship among the churches.
Dr. Merav Mack, a research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Truman Institute for Peace at the Hebrew University tells The Jerusalem Report that despite the historical rivalries, the heads of the churches have been working together very closely for decades. Necessity and fear of intervention may have been one of the driving forces, she says.
“To my mind, the key is leadership and practice. The heads of the churches have been meeting regularly and producing joint statements since the days of the first intifada,” says Mack. “The successful renovations of the dome of the [Church of the Holy Sepulcher] and the Church of the Nativity are proof that it can be done.”
The agreement on the Edicule was reached smoothly before Easter, and work started immediately after the holiday.
Macora notes that despite the often cited disputes among the Churches, in reality, relations have improved since the 1960s. While they may have reached a plateau there are now fewer conflicts.
“There have been sporadic outbreaks and there will be outbreaks in the future, but they are significantly less than in the past,” says Macora.
The cooperation at both churches is a reflection of the fact that in recent years the relationship has been “pretty good” with Christian leaders such as Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Krill leading the way with historic meetings, says Father Russ McDougall, rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.
“It has been the best it has been in a long time,” he says. “I can’t think of one precipatory event, but there have been attempts at outreach and gestures of friendships extended by the leaders of the different Churches.”
However, McDougall says, on a more practical level, Church leaders in the Holy Land more than likely were convinced to move forward with restoration by the shock of many Christians coming from abroad at seeing the sad shape of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, especially the Edicule.
“To restore the shrine ‒ certainly the holiest place for Christianity ‒ so that it will be a place of beauty again is really important,” says McDougall.
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