Shared Control Tests Christian Churches' Mettle

CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY

ALL across the Holy Land, the rain that fell last Friday to end a protracted drought was welcomed as a blessing. Except, that is, at the Church of the Nativity, built over the manger where Jesus is said to have been born. Here monks readied basins and buckets to catch water leaking through the roof that they cannot agree to mend.

For this Christmas finds the three Christian communities that share the church locked in another round of their centuries-old dispute over who has the right to do what with their particular corner.

The Basilica of the Nativity, one of the earliest churches and holiest sites in Christendom, was built by the Greek Orthodox in the fourth century and subsequently also used by the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic crusaders. The current dispute over who should mend the roof is another in a long line of arguments that has arisen among the Greeks, Armenians, and Latins, as the Catholics are known, who maintain competing claims to different parts of the church with an intensity that bewilders outsiders.

The Rev. Jerry Murphy O'Connor, a Catholic archaeologist who has lived in Jerusalem for nearly 30 years, ascribes the passion to ``the whole ethos of this area - the tradition that you're only really secure if you're in total control.''

In an effort to avoid earlier disputes over ownership, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Holy Land for centuries, issued edicts in the middle of the 19th century known as the ``status quo,'' freezing all attempts to modify the churches' traditional rights. Codified under the British Mandate in Palestine earlier this century, the ``status quo'' goes into extraordinary detail.

``The Latins have the right of passage to their Church and Convent'' adjacent to the Basilica ``through the Basilica, in between the first and second pillars of the Northern rows,'' the document reads. It warns, though, that ``attempts on various occasions have been made by the Latins to pass between the second and third pillars.''

The dispute over who should mend the leaking roof has arisen, like other similar arguments in the past, because ``doing repairs is a way of showing your rights'' to ownership, explains Shmuel Hamburger, the man in charge of religious affairs for the Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank.

He had to send a soldier to the church last month to dissuade the Greeks after they had made two attempts, one secretly at night, to mend the roof. ``They are trying to extend their dominion over all sections of the church,'' an Armenian clergy source complains.

Mr. Hamburger has become involved in the roof repairs, he says, because according to the ``status quo,'' when the three communities cannot agree on who should do repairs they are done by the governing power, whether that be Turkish, British, Jordanian, or Israeli.

But some Christian leaders feel the Israeli authorities have exaggerated the dispute in order to pour scorn on the churches for political reasons.

``Most religious leaders are openly with the intifadah,'' the three-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, points out the Armenian source. ``The Israelis are making a big deal out of this roof business because their relations with the church are not good. They are overjoyed to show the world that we cannot agree.''

Only last week the patriarchs of the Christian churches in the Holy Land issued a statement deploring the ``deterioration in the condition of the Palestinian people'' and announcing that ``in view of the continuing sad state of affairs in our land'' they will celebrate Christmas ``without any manifestation of jubilation.''

``We consider it our sacred duty to voice our concern about human rights violations in the occupied territories,'' they said.

``All the people who are not happy with the unity of the church would want to use'' the dispute over the roof of the Church of the Nativity, says Bishop Timothy, secretary to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

``Throughout the centuries there have been many disputes between the Christian communities,'' Bishop Timothy adds. ``But what is important is that, despite the misunderstandings, they have managed to live like brothers and to keep the holy places in Christian hands. That is a real achievement.''

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