Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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ISRAEL: Brawling monks refuse to turn the other cheek

November 10, 2008 | 10:05 am

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict naturally garners most of the world's attention here, it's sometimes easy to forget that Jerusalem is considered hallowed ground (and therefore worth fighting over) by a host of overlapping Christian orders -- all constantly struggling for turf rights.

On Sunday morning, Israeli police rushed into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, to break up a violent confrontation between Greek and Armenian Orthodox monks just a few feet from the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified.

The ugly scene was even captured on video.

While the level of violence Sunday was shocking, inter-Christian struggles are nothing new here, especially around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The site is shared by a host of different Christian orders, including Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox and Roman Catholic. All sides zealously guard their rights and privileges under a fragile set of agreements that date back to the Ottoman Empire.

The unhealthy dynamic turns even the most minor maintenance issue into a multi-directional political stalemate.

Much-needed repairs to the roof have been delayed by sectarian wrangling. The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit at the church, which is regularly packed with thousands of visitors and pilgrims but has only one main exit. But nobody can agree on where the exit should be placed.

Famously, the keys to the church's front door are held, via mutual agreement, by a Muslim family to keep the Christians from fighting over that as well.

-- Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem

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