JERUSALEM — “There is a time,” the Bible tells us, “to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” For the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, however, the act of moving even a single stone can provoke the greatest of controversies.

Stones have apparently complicated restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of shrines and altars that houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the place where Jesus died on the cross, and the place where he was resurrected.

Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of these places. They have devised among themselves an elaborate choreography of how and when each church can use each space. 

On September 22nd, 2017, the Church of the Archangel Michael, part of the Holy Sepulchre complex, was ordered closed after a small stone fell from its the ceiling.

Instead of repairing it, the two churches that claim ownership over the church prevented one another from making necessary repairs. One of them is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has long claimed ownership of the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the surrounding courtyard atop the complex, called Deir El-Sultan. The other church that claims ownership is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

When the stone fell, the Copts and the Ethiopians could not decide who was to take responsibility for reinforcing the ceiling of the Church of the Archangel Michael. The physical damage caused by the falling stone, however, paled in comparison to the fragile peace that was shattered between the two churches as age-old disputes bubbled to the surface.

It was not a matter of money. “Everyone can afford to repair it,” explained the Rev. Marcos Alorshalmey, the secretary of the Coptic order. “It’s only a small piece of the roof, but the Ethiopians don’t recognize us as the owners.”

St. Antony’s – Father Markos Alorshalemy, Secretary (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

He said that the Copts and Ethiopians generally cooperate. “At the end of the day, we are all one Christian community. But if you have a right, you cannot just leave it – you have to defend it.”

But the Ethiopians have a different story. Bar Markos is one of 21 monks living in cramped cells in Deir El-Sultan.

He claims that the Ethiopian presence goes back 2,000 or more years. “There were monks at the time of Jesus Christ here,” said Markos, shaking an English-language pamphlet in his right hand.

“And before that, the Queen of Sheba secured this land for the Ethiopians from King Solomon.”

After this confident declaration, he invited tourists to come and see their one remaining church, where a painting of the Abyssinians bringing gifts to the Davidic king hangs from the wall.

Deir El-Sultan – Bar Markos, left, is one of around 21 monks living on the holy site. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

When Alorshalemy heard of this claim, he was baffled.

“But King Solomon was not Christian!” cried Alorshalemy.

“And more than that, during the time of King Solomon, there was no one here. There was no monastery. No church. No nothing! So, how come King Solomon gave them this area?” he questioned, repeatedly.

Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the archaeological and historical record falls silent on these claims, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a destination of Christian pilgrimage since at least 325 A.D., when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have rediscovered the holy site.

Mutual recognition between the two Oriental churches of an Ethiopian presence on Deir El-Sultan begins in the 17th Century.

Both sides are in agreement that, in 1654, the Armenians and Greeks evicted the Ethiopians from their altars inside the main church when they could not afford to pay taxes on their property.

At that time, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, as an apostolic see, ministered to the Copts and Ethiopians. It was not until 1959, when the Coptic Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopians their own patriarch, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church became fully independent.

“Before, they had no place to go,” said Alorshemy. “So we, as their mother church, allowed them to stay as guests until they found somewhere else.

“Back then, the Copts were few in number, so the Ethiopians ended up staying there for many years.”

In fact, the Ethiopians go a step farther than this in their official history, which is summarized in a pamphlet that is readily available from their church offices. They claim that it was actually the Copts – and a man by the name of Ibrahim Giuhari, specifically – who stole property from the Ethiopians back in 1774. No evidence was produced to corroborate this event.

The Copts, however, say that they have evidence that they were there even earlier. For example, the iconostasis and other engravings bear the hallmarks of Coptic design. Official documents date these artifacts to the early 12th century.

Circa late-1800s – Coptic monks praying in the two disputed churches of Deir El-Sultan (Courtesy of St. Antony’s Coptic Monastery)

Though none of the monks speak fluent English, Hebrew or even Arabic, the pamphlet goes to pains to describe the poverty of the Ethiopian community, who, through the centuries have lost the majority of their properties in the Holy Land. Their last stand, they seem to be saying, is Deir El-Sultan. What emerges from this short historical pamphlet is a people clinging on dearly to what little they have.

Shortly after the dispute over the fallen stone, the Coptic Metropolitan Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East, Anba Antonios, issued a press statement saying that the Copts should be put in charge of the renovation based on legal precedents. He recounted the number of times the Ethiopians had wrongfully tried to seize their property and had failed.

“We call upon all parties concerned to support the Coptic Church in preserving its property in the Holy Land,” said the bishop.

Twice, he wrote, the Ethiopians had stolen the keys to Deir El-Sultan’s main buildings and gates – once in 1850, and again, in 1862. In both cases, the Ottomans ruled in favor of the Copts by decree.

The Dome of the Church of St. Helen – an Ethiopic monk prays decades of the rosary. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Alorshalemy speculates that these incidents instilled within the Ethiopians the feeling that they were under threat of expulsion. On two separate occasions since the 19th century, the Ethiopians have secretly attempted to commission renovations and painting, in order to exercise some proprietary right over the premises. In 1959, a Jordanian court even decided to hand over the keys to the Ethiopians, but this was short-lived, as the Copts successfully petitioned King Hussein a year later.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated Egypt, the Israeli government turned Deir El-Sultan over to the Ethiopians. Again, the Copts appealed and won in the Israeli Supreme Court, but the decision was not acted upon.

“The Israeli government has refused to implement the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1971 to the present day,” explained the bishop in dismay.

To preserve their rights, the Copts have devised a series of symbolic acts and gestures, which, they believe, proves their undisputed ownership.

“We have one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where the head of the monks in that monastery should stay,” said Father Alorshalemy.

“That room is ours, so one of our monks goes and sleeps there every day,” he added. “But because there is no water, no electricity, no sewage, we take it in turns to stay there.”

The 21-strong Ethiopian community feels much aggrieved by their lot, too, but they blame it largely on the Copts.

They complain that for 80 years, until 1970, the two Ethiopian shrines were locked for Easter, and they had to celebrate outside in the open air. Similarly, at times, the purported shutdown prevented the Ethiopians “from burying the corpses of dead priests and nuns,” reads the pamphlet. These claims have not been independently verified.

“Politics is a dirty game,” lamented Bar Markos, bowing his head.

“Even your cat or your dog cannot live in this place. In this society, in this century – there is no humanity.”

Deir El-Sultan– Ethiopian monks have lived here in ‘temporary residence’ since 1654, when they were evicted from the main church. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

These accusations have deeply upset the Copts, though despite living several feet apart, the two orders rarely meet, or converse, on account of the language barrier. This makes a resolution near impossible. At present, there is only one clerical figure who speaks Amharic and Arabic, and he resides with the Copts. His name is the Rev. Gabriel Selassie. He is at least 93-years-old and was ostracized from the Ethiopian community 18 years ago for supporting the Coptic position.

In 2008, the late Dominican priest, the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, published a book entitled “The Holy Land. He alleged that the Copts were “torturing” the Ethiopians, forcing them to live in poverty. Alorshalemy said that he was shocked at the charges, which, in his view, made the Copts out to be “bad people.” He wrote to Oxford University Press, requesting a correction in the next edition.

The Copts see it differently. In light of their charity work and sustained commitment to allowing the Ethiopians to stay on Deir El-Sultan, the monks of St. Anthony’s take great offense to such judgments on their character.

“It’s simply not true – not true at all,” sighed Father Alorshalemy.

Almost a month to the day after the stone fell, the Dangerous Buildings Department of the Jerusalem Municipality sent government-appointed engineers to admit equipment to the site to begin repairs. As a compromise, the Israeli government had offered to fix the roof.

But the Copts had flatly refused unless certain conditions were met. Among these, the Copts insisted that they – and not the Ethiopians or the Israeli government – pay for the restoration. It was clearly a way of asserting ownership.

No reply came.

“As we did not receive any reply, we sent several other letters to confirm our readiness,” recalled Bishop Antonios.

“We sent the engineering report, the blueprints and the contract agreement to the engineering office assigned with the renovations,” he added. “But we have yet to receive any written response.”

And neither would they. The government proposal to take control of the renovation was not the one the Copts had hoped for. When they heard the news, the Archbishop hurried to assemble all the Coptic monks, deacons and priests to peacefully protest the decision. They stood at the gate and waited until engineers left without delivering the equipment.

“The Egyptian Embassy intervened in this matter,” said the Coptic bishop, “and this led to the delay of the work until coordination in writing is made with us.” The entry of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry into these negotiations has undoubtedly raised the stakes, for the confrontation has now escalated beyond a petty church dispute.

But it remains to be seen what will happen next, and more importantly, how the Ethiopians will react. Alorshalemy is optimistic that a solution will be reached soon, though the Ethiopians will not compromise so easily.

Deir El-Sultan – An Ethiopian nun reads a newspaper. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)