Dispute over risk to Christian shrine

Mediators dismiss reports that crumbling Ethiopian monastery is a threat

JERUSALEM. Officials are disputing recent reports that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holiest shrines, is at risk because of a crumbling Ethiopian Orthodox monastery on its roof.

Franciscan monk Father Athanasius Macora of the Custody of the Holy Land told The Art Newspaper that headlines across Israel and Europe in recent weeks making these charges were “erroneous” and “exaggerated”.

“The huts on Deir el-Sultan where the Ethiopian monks live are in very bad shape,” Father Athanasius said. “But the idea that the huts could knock down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is absurd.”

As the Franciscan liaison between six Christian churches which have rites at the Holy Sepulchre, Father Athanasius holds diagrams of the complex showing that the press reports also confused the location of the stone living quarters with the main monastery. “The huts are near but not over the Chapel of St Helens [as widely reported].”

An Israeli building inspector’s report is at question, since reporters were not privy to a copy of the document and Israel’s Interior Ministry has no plans to release it, explained Yaakov Salameh, the director of minority affairs.

“It’s not our report to release since it’s not our church,” he said. “But I can tell you that the monastery abuts, but is not part of the church. The situation at the monastery is not good, but it doesn’t put the Holy Sepulchre at risk.”

Mr Salameh said that the Ethiopian monastery can repair the living quarters without Israeli intervention, but that the government will help only if both churches there approve the engineering plans. For now, it remains at a standstill, as Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox monks each dispute the other having any rights there. The Ethiopian archbishop was in Ethiopia and the Coptic archbishop was in Egypt as we went to press, and were unavailable for comment.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Franciscan Catholic churches oversee and share the major rites at the ancient Holy Sepulchre complex, where the crucifixion, burial and ascension of Jesus is believed to have taken place, according to Christian tradition. Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox churches also have minor rites there. Unique in the history of churches, eastern and western religions share the spaces, authority and property.

Because of a long history of conflicts between the orders, Jewish Israeli police man the security and Muslim families hold the key to the only entrance. The Ottoman authorities in 1852 tried to resolve the infighting by outlining details of worship and property rights in the dozens of internal chapels and halls.

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