Monk Fight! Monk Fight!

It may be the holiest site for Christians in all of Israel, but it turns my stomach. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher probably enshrines the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus Christ. The original Golgotha was just outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a hill of soft limestone that wasn’t suited for use as a building material, but it was in an ideal location as a site for public executions. Later, after the death of Christ, it was enclosed by the last wall surrounding the city. The “modern wall” built by Suliman the Magnificent in the eighth century follows this new wall and so Golgotha is now enclosed by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and surrounded by buildings in the old city.

The original limestone outcropping was carved into a beautiful shrine, and later a church surrounded it. That church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by Emperor Constantine in 335 A.D. was destroyed in 1009 A.D. and rebuilt by the Crusaders. It has been continuously added onto and modified since that time.

Now the question is, “Who owns the church?” It’s not an easy question to answer. Six different churches claim ownership: the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Armenians, Coptics (Egyptians), Syrians, and the Ethiopians. The Greeks claim they were the first, but the church was destroyed. After the coming of the Crusaders, in 1233, the Roman Catholics came. The Ethiopians claim they have been in Jerusalem since the days of the Queen of Sheba and, later, the Ethiopian eunuch.

In 1757, to put an end to the endless squabbling, Turks, then Jerusalem’s rulers, proclaimed a status quo for all holy sites in the city, which was confirmed in 1852 and has been enforced by all succeeding conquerors — including, since 1967, Israel.[1]

This document divided the church into different sections and common areas. It is quite explicit about who has what, and what they must do. This has led to frequent fights to protect rights. For example, the Ethiopians have a monastery on the roof. The Coptics claim it was theirs first and they only allowed the Africans to stay there as guests. A Coptic monk takes a folding chair up there every day and sits to assert their rights. In 2008, he moved his chair 20 centimeters into the shade of a tree that was growing out of the rocks on the roof. This led to a battle that sent monks to the hospital! Now the monk comes and sits every day for 15 minutes with a police escort and three guards.

In another incident, during a candle lighting ceremony, a mass fight broke out between Armenian priests and Greek monks! That resulted in the arrest of two monks and several injuries. (You can watch it on YouTube! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9a6f9RI-Fs You can also watch monks fighting with brooms in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETAGB6LGD5Q but that’s a story for another day.)

I’m sorry but didn’t Jesus say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)? However, before we start condemning those whacky monks, perhaps we should ask ourselves, are a better example of Christ’s love?


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/26/world/jerusalem-journal-atop-church-another-less-deadly-holy-war.html March 6, 2021

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