Monks with brooms fight in Jesus' birthplace

The tussle at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is only the latest in a long series of turf disputes

It was a spectacle that should put smiles on women’s faces: dozens of men fighting for the privilege to do housework. Yet in this case, it wasn’t a light-hearted holiday fracas but a religious contretemps, sparked in one of the holiest seasons, in the birthplace of Christ: Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Some 100 Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics attacked one another with brooms and fists while cleaning the 1,700-year-old church in the West Bank last week in advance of the Jan. 7 Orthodox Christmas (and after the Western Christmas). While the exact spark of the crisis is unknown, its origin can be traced back to a centuries-old system known as the Status Quo. Promulgated by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Palestine from the 1500s to the First World War, it was meant to end physical battles over control of all of the area’s holy sites by preserving forever the existing rights of those Christian churches that occupied the buildings. So whoever dusted a particular area of floor, cleaned a specific chandelier or used a particular area on a particular feast day, owned that right forever.

While those rules have reduced the bloodshed, they also resulted in churches fiercely protecting their rights, since letting anyone take over a responsibility, however slight, resulted in the loss of ownership of that right. In 1853, a dispute involving a golden door key and whether Catholics could put a silver star over the manger escalated until several Orthodox monks were killed and Russia had the excuse it needed to start the Crimean War against Turkey. And in 2006, the Greeks were doing their traditional dusting of chandeliers in an Armenian-controlled part of the church when they tried to move their ladder from its mandated spot. “They had to know this was like waving a red rag in front of a bull,” Raymond Cohen, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told Smithsonian magazine. Several clerics landed in hospital.

Since the custodial churches can’t agree on how to fund and carry out repairs—crucial ownership rights are at stake—it’s no surprise that major repair jobs have piled up. The roof is now so rotten that water is leaking onto priceless paintings and mosaics. The Palestinian Authority is trying to negotiate a settlement but history shows that could take time. After an earthquake badly damaged Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1927, it took a decade for its churches to hammer out a repair agreement.

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