Here is a little good news about Mideast Christians, for a change. Last week, the three principal Christian communities that maintain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem announced that they have reached agreement on repairs to the Edicule, a nineteenth-century structure that encompasses the Tomb of Christ. At a joint news conference, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic communities announced that work on the structure, built a little more than 200 years ago, will start right after Orthodox Easter in May and last several months. The three communities will share the costs—about three million euros—and each appoint architects to help with the project. Pilgrims will continue to have access to the site while renovations are underway.
Readers who don’t know the history might fail to appreciate what an accomplishment this is. The three communities share the church, along with some smaller Christian communions, according to the terms of the Status Quo, a compilation of customs that dates to Ottoman times. The Status Quo governs the relationship among the communities in minute detail: which can use which altars at which times, how many lamps each community is allowed, and so on. Relations are often fractious. Because, under the Status Quo, maintaining or paying for repairs of a structure asserts ownership, each community has an incentive to prevent others from undertaking renovation projects. Needed repairs are often delayed until the situation becomes truly dire—as is the case with the Edicule, which has been held together by scaffolding since the 1940s.As Israeli scholar Raymond Cohen explains in a masterful history, Saving the Holy Sepulchre, it took the communities decades to agree on a plan to fix the church’s dome, and they reached agreement only when the dome was about to fall down. That project, the last major renovation of the church, was completed about 20 years ago.
Well, relations have improved. The new situation reflects in part what Pope Francis has called the “ecumenism of blood.” The persecution of Mideast Christians does not respect confessional boundaries. When ISIS is slaughtering your people, disputes about lamps do not seem so vital. The Facebook page of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which represents the Armenian Apostolic Church, has pictures of the three happy Christian leaders at the news conference (above). Peace, it’s wonderful. Let’s hope the good feelings last for the upcoming Holy Fire ceremony at Easter, which often occasions conflict. Fistfights are not unknown.