Goodwill toward men eludes Bethlehem. Conflicting claims to Church of Nativity heighten religious tension

Christmas in the Church of the Nativity will be celebrated this year in traditional fashion: bells will ring, choirs will sing, and quite possibly, fists will fly. Far from promoting a sense of goodwill toward men, the traditional rites celebrated in turn by Roman Catholics (Dec. 24 and 25), Greek Orthodox (Jan. 6 and 7), and Armenians (Jan. 19), seem to exacerbate tensions among the sects. As in many disputes in what was once called Palestine, the church battles often erupt over conflicting claims to the same piece of property - in this case, the spot where millions believe Jesus was born in a manger.

With the Roman Christmas here, relations between the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox have hit a new low. The 1,600-year-old Church of the Nativity - like all other churches built over sites believed to be holy - is divided among sects that jealously guard their property rights. The Greek Orthodox control the largest part of the fortress-like stone church. But sovereignty over every inch of wall and floor is reestablished during the annual General Cleaning Day - scheduled for next week - and sometimes violent confrontations erupt over disputed areas.

This year, in an unprecedented move, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch has threatened to cancel the traditional Greek Orthodox procession to Bethlehem. Patriarch Diodorus I is demanding that Israeli authorities uphold an Orthodox claim to a small section of disputed wall in the church.

The Armenians who dispute the Greek rights to the wall say the Patriarch is bluffing. But some Armenians are predicting trouble between the two sects if the Patriarch does not drop his insistence that Greek priests clean the disputed area on General Cleaning Day.

``We are prepared for anything,'' declared Hagop Antreassian, a leader of the 2,000-member Armenian community that resides behind the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. ``We Armenians lost a lot of rights in Jerusalem during the Turkish rule [1517-1917]. One of these rights was to this wall. There is national dignity at stake here.''

The disputes have flared periodically among the sects for 300 years. The Ottoman Turks tried to settle proprietary rights among the squabbling sects in 1757 by issuing decisions that are enforced today as the ``status quo.'' The status quo minutely details each faith's area of sovereignty in the churches. Successive governing powers in the Holy Land have clung to the status quo as the only course to steer among the querulous sects. But some areas, including the section of wall above the grotto in the Church of the Nativity, are still claimed by more than one sect.

Two years ago, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests who met in the Church of the Nativity on General Cleaning Day beat each other before Israeli border police could separate them. That battle, says Mr. Antreassian ``was nothing'' compared to one he said he participated in on Jan. 6, 1962. Jan. 6 is Christmas Eve for the Eastern churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church. Jordan controlled the West Bank in 1962, and the Greeks had again raised the issue of the disputed wall section, according to Antreassian.

Antreassian said he is sorry that the disputes between the sects sometimes result in violence.

``Of course, I don't want to be violent,'' he said. ``Of course, I would rather celebrate at home with my children. Who wants to fight? But if we give up, then the wall is gone. Instead of asking why we are violent on Christmas Day, you should ask why do the strong people want to do illegal things to the weak ones. Why do they want to take our rights? The weak always turn to violence in the end.''

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