Risk of Collapse at Jesus’ Tomb Unites Rival Christians
JERUSALEM — It was a typical day at the shrine around what many believe is the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem’s Old City. A Greek Orthodox choir sang inside a room facing the baroque structure. But the voices were drowned out when chanting Armenian priests and monks circling the shrine raised theirs.
“Sometimes they punch each other,” Farah Atallah, a church guard wearing a fez, observed with a shrug.
Mr. Atallah is a seasoned witness to the rivalries among the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic communities that jealously share — and sometimes spar over — what they consider Christianity’s holiest site, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Amid the rivalry, the unsteady 206-year-old structure, held together by a 69-year-old iron cage, is an uncomfortable, often embarrassing symbol of Christian divisions, which have periodically erupted into tensions. In 2008, monks and priests brawled near the shrine, throwing punches and pulling one another’s hair not far from the tomb where Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
But in recent weeks, scaffolding has gone up a few feet from the shrine in the gloomy shadows of the Arches of the Virgin, the first step in a rare agreement by the various Christian communities to save the dilapidated shrine, also called the Aedicule, from falling down.
The March 22 agreement calls for a $3.4 million renovation to begin next month, after Orthodox Easter celebrations. Each religious group will contribute one-third of the costs, and a Greek bank contributed 50,000 euros, or $57,000, for the scaffolding, in return for having its name emblazoned across the machinery.
The idea is to peel away hundreds of years of the shrine’s history, clean it and put it back together. Simple enough, but delayed for decades because of the complicated, centuries-old rules and minute traditions — called the status quo — that define the way Jerusalem’s holy sites are governed, in which the very act of repairing something can imply ownership.