Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Hostile Territory

Perhaps not directly applicable to the situation in the West, but still an interesting story.  How do Christians of different denominations act or cooperate when living in otherwise hostile territory? 

It is clear that Christians in the West live in hostile territory, and it is a subject that I have written about (tangentially) at this site quite a bit.  One could also consider Christians in some (not all) Muslim countries, for both similar and different reasons.  There is one place where all of this comes together, in Jerusalem:

Three churches — the Greek Orthodox, the Latin (Roman Catholic), and the Armenian Apostolic (in order of precedence) — own the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church have no property within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but they have rights to worship and celebrate within it. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church once had a much more prominent position, but lost it in the 18th century. Its community has been relegated to the roof of the church.

The Church dates to the fourth century; it has seen much history.  The article is written around an upcoming documentary on this Church, entitled “Holy Fire,” “the annual ceremony that takes place every year at two o’clock in the afternoon on Great Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter.”  (A short trailer of the movie is here.)

There was a time that the fire appeared miraculously from inside the tomb.  No longer, but this is not my focus.  I will focus on the aspect of this relationship that is described as the never-ending power struggles.

Fr. Samuel Aghoyan, Superior at the Armenian Monastery at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre narrates the film, “pulling back the curtain to let us see that not everything that goes on at the Holy Sepulchre is holy.”  He has been at the site for over 60 years, first coming as a boy.  He has seen a lot.

The various denominations rooted in different countries and cultures that have coexisted at the site for centuries are in a never-ending struggle over rights, territory, power and control of the church and all of Orthodox Christianity.

“If you don’t keep what is yours both in terms of rights and territories, and vigilantly protect it, others will take it from you… It’s my spiritual country and I want to defend it. Period,” says Aghoyan.

He has seen what has happened to the Ethiopian Orthodox. They once had rights in property, but today, nothing.  Well, they have the roof.  Even this is disputed, as the Egyptian Coptics claim it as well.

“It’s not Christian what we do or say sometimes. But hey, well that’s life,” Aghoyan deadpans.

The status quo has held since 1853 (1757 per a different source), when Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans.  Well, it is a status quo which also includes several violent brawls in the meantime.

The dividing lines include even the columns of the Church – with property in the column even split down the middle.  Cleaning of the lanterns at the Stone of Unction must be witnessed by all other denominations.  There is one police officer – an Arab Christian – assigned to keep the peace.

“The status quo is the grayest area in the Christian world… Every problem that comes up between two denominations over control, possession, power, sovereignty. All those things. I’ve learned one thing here in the Old City: patience, and more patience. That is a challenge in and of itself,” [Israel Police’s liaison officer for Christian communities Johnny] Kassabri says.


This most sacred site in Christendom was shuttered ahead of Orthodox Easter week this past March for the first time since 1349, when the Black Death ravaged large parts of the world.

Christianity is under attack, and for good reason if you are after total control of society.  For the cause of both salvation and liberty, it would help – not just in this Holy Church but throughout the West – if Christians acted on this understanding.

1 comment:

  1. “The status quo is the grayest area in the Christian world…"--from the quote by Johnny Kassabri above.

    And the most racially segregated places in America today are Christian churches on Sunday morning. As racial divisions are heated up, it is quite probable that many attendees are secretly glad that blacks don't attend 'our' church or that whites stay away from 'our' church. Or maybe I am completely bonkers and all the hatred, animosity, and vitriol is conveniently forgotten while the choir sings and the pastor preaches.

    Is it any wonder that Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant in so many places? It says a lot about the status of the Church when a political figure can simply shut its doors over a relatively mild virus and everyone falls all over themselves to comply with the order.

    Perhaps we have placed too large an emphasis on the buildings of the churches and not enough on the building blocks, the people, of The Church. Perhaps buildings (an outward sign of wealth) have become idols to us. Perhaps God, Who hates idols, is allowing us to get our fill of a false worship. Perhaps it is necessary that we lose what we struggle to hold onto, but cannot keep, in order to find out what is truly important.

    Perhaps we will learn what is truly important. I have hope.