Finding unity at the divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre

JERUSALEM — There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second-floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.

The “immovable ladder,” as it's known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone – no one knows who – left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed on who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.

“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh. Isidoris, with his bushy black beard, is the Greek Orthodox Superior of the Holy Sepulchre Church. He represents one of the three main denominations that claim ownership of the land. The others are the Catholic Church, represented by the Franciscan order, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are yet three more groups that also claim rights of usage: the Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

The ladder remains perhaps the most visible indicator of historic tensions between churches at the Holy Sepulchre. Asked if the denominations normally get along Isidoris said, “Yes,” then hesitated and added, “Not always. Sometimes we have troubles.”

But recently the churches have put their differences aside to present a united front. In February this year, in a dramatic act of protest against the Israeli government’s tax plan, the various denominational leaders agreed to shutter the doors of the church, one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist sites. By bucking their usual trend of reluctant cooperation, the churches have sent a strong message to the Israeli government: we won’t have our affairs meddled in!

Church leaders perceived the Israelis as launching a two-pronged attack on their finances. First, a new tax policy to levy municipality taxes was proposed. It would have incurred payments on commercial activities such as hotels and other businesses run by churches. Second, a new law would have allowed the government to expropriate church properties sold since 2010.

Jerusalem’s Christian community galvanized in opposition to the proposed changes and some see the proposed taxes as an existential threat. According to a Franciscan friar who did not wish to be named as his current role at the Holy Sepulchre prevents him from talking to press, the Church views the taxes as an encroachment on Christians in Jerusalem. “Israel will start with a tax on mercantile activities and then will go on to push the church out,” he said.

The government backed down rapidly in response to the protest. Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem suspended the tax plan and a debate on the property bill has been pushed back, with Israeli officials saying a committee will look into it. After three days, the church reopened but its closure is still a topic of discussion within the hallowed walkways of the Via Dolorosa.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

“The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes,” said a priest from the Coptic Church, lingering by the small archway, marked only by a faded bronze plaque, which leads from the narrow streets of the Old City into the courtyard of the church. He said there are no substantial problems between the churches and, if there are disputes, “it’s a matter of organization.”

The organization of the Holy Sepulchre is a delicate choreography based on ancient customs and precedent set during the British mandate of the early twentieth century. “In Jerusalem, what is most crucial is the status quo,” said Dr. Avital Heyman-Aranne, an interdisciplinary researcher based in Jerusalem who was hosting a tour of the church one weekend this spring soon after it had reopened.

The Holy Sepulchre beats with the syncopated rhythm of worship and ceremony established by this status quo. It may seem chaotic, but each group gets its space to perform the rituals that are important to it. On a recent Sunday, Armenian pilgrims swarmed to the light of a tall iron candleholder in the Armenian section, between the entrance and the site of Jesus’ tomb. Dozens of candles, drooping heavily with wax, burned a bright yellow fire. The pilgrims each clutched their bundle of 33 beeswax tapered candles, thin like breadsticks, bought from the nearby souk. They brought their own bundles to light, extinguish and take home.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

They collected the Holy Fire of the Holy Sepulchre, a religious symbol of the miracle believed to occur each year around Easter. On Holy Saturday, preceding the Orthodox Easter, it is believed that a Holy Fire spontaneously combusts inside the marble tomb of Jesus’ resurrection.  Huddled just feet away from this site, the pilgrims earnestly lit their candles, hoping to carry the spirit of this fire and Christ their savior with them. The Greek airline Aegean Air transports fire from the flame back to Greece on three specially scheduled flights each year, according to a representative.

As the pilgrims shoved and elbowed each other to get closer, a procession of Armenian priests rushed past, chanting. Then those lined up to visit inside the tomb just steps away were pushed aside and a priest in long robes cleared the path. It was time for the Franciscans to make their procession. As they did, the path cleared on the other side of the tomb to usher in the Coptic monk who blessed those who entered the crypt where Jesus’ head is said to have laid.

The afternoon continued in this way, a constant rumble of religious fervor, of prayer and throat-catching incense and liturgical song. Different Christian rituals were performed alongside each other, representing the customs of each denomination. They rushed parallel to one another, like airplanes narrowly avoiding each other’s flight paths.

Sitting on a low wooden bench in the entrance, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, 69, oversaw it all. Nuseibeh is charged with unlocking the Holy Sepulchre’s door each morning. It’s a tradition he claims his family has upheld since the seventh century.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

According to the Nuseibeh family website, the keys to the Holy Sepulchre were placed in their custody in the wake of the Arab-Islamic capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Omar. After the crusades, they say they were entrusted with keeping the peace on this holy site in perpetuity. According to Nuseibeh, his job is vital so as “to be neutral between the Christians.”

“Nobody is allowed to open, only me,” he said and took the heavy lock down from the door to pose for a photograph. Nuseibeh is stout with wispy gray hair and a mustache. He wore a suit and seemed to like being photographed. On his phone he saves images of his interactions with world leaders and celebrities. He has met Superman, President Trump and the Pope, to name a few. His favorite President was Jimmy Carter. “He is very simple and quiet and he wants to hear and to talk,” Nuseibeh said.

But Nuseibeh is not the only Muslim to claim control of this site. Adeem Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, 53, is the key custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Nuseibeh opens the door, Al Husseini keeps the key. His family website too boasts an illustrious and ancient history. And his business card features the ancient key, a long metal rod with a triangular point and circle on the end. It slots into the lock that Nuseibeh proudly guards.

Between the two of them, access to the Holy Sepulchre remains a clandestine activity. The Franciscan friar said there is a secret back entrance through the Greek Orthodox section of the church. But getting through is a rare occurrence, not least since language barriers often hamper communication between the denominations, he said.

The friar, in his early thirties and imposing in his chocolate brown robes and closely shaven ginger beard, hails from California. He said the recent closure “wasn’t a difficult decision.” The denominations are getting along better now, he said, as they see Israel threatening the rights of Christians in the Holy Land.

But united as the churches might appear now, the intricacies of negotiation linger in everything from the turning of a key, to the lighting of the candle and the movement of a ladder. Perhaps Dr. Theodossios Mitropoulos, doctor of conservation and restoration for the Greek Orthodox Church at the Holy Sepulchre said it best. “It’s very complicated this monument,” he said.

As published in The Media Project


Voices from Godland, Episode 1: The Báb

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Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.


Halal and a holy book: The Islamic Center at NYU serves up weekly spiritual discussions

NEW YORK — Just after 7 p.m., Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer enters the fourth-floor conference room at the New York University Islamic Center on Thompson Street in Lower Manhattan. He has a MacBook in one hand and a copy of the Quran in the other. This is Jaffer’s weekly halaqa, a religious gathering for the study of Islam and the Quran.

Jaffer pulls a regular crowd – those who have gathered tonight came to hear his interpretation of chapter 35 of the Quran. He is a renowned scholar of Islam and a sheikh, which differs from an imam by the virtue of having had a seminary education. Jaffer takes his position on the floor and opens his MacBook as the nine other members of the group gather in a circle around him, pulling out their phones and Kindles to read along. They sit on a gray carpet, propped up by dark blue floor chairs. They face out the full-length windows where the Empire State Building is just visible beyond the Washington Square Arch. In the middle of the circle, an iPad supported on a tripod is streaming the event live on Facebook.

Jaffer begins by reading verse five of chapter 35 from the MacBook. The Quran lies on the floor next to him. He reads in Arabic and notes that this verse asks believers to reflect on the concept of “dunya,” the Arabic word for world. Jaffer explains the root of this word comes from the meaning “very low,” which reminds believers that the human world is the lowest of the low. “We as a human being are not only to focus on this real corporeal dimension,” Jaffer says, since in this verse Muslims are reminded there is something beyond this earth that is of a greater nature.

“Surely Satan is your enemy, so make sure you treat him as an enemy,” says Jaffer, moving on to translate verse six. In Islam, Satan is not just one entity but has many forms and exists in humans. Reading this verse in the context of the last, Jaffer says that God reminds believers that if they are deceived by this earthly world, they may fall into the trap of Satan. When you see people cutting corners and focusing on material things, you should steer clear, Jaffer warns.

In the final two verses of the evening, verses seven and eight, Jaffer discusses the role of God in punishing those who do fall into the trappings of the corporeal world and Satan. The balance lies with the believer, he concludes. God will welcome those who take a step towards him but your faith has to be strong. God doesn’t just forgive anyone.

After half an hour, Jaffer closes the conversation with an Arabic saying and turns off the iPad’s stream. The groups ask questions and reflect on the teachings.

And then it’s time to eat!  Individual portions of biryani have been delivered from BK JANI, a Pakistani restaurant in Brooklyn. The night's menu includes a slightly spicy chicken curry served with rice and a yogurt sauce. The group moves to another section of the room and sits cross-legged, eating from takeaway containers using plastic forks. There are two big trays of Dunkin’ Donuts to go with the biryani, which is fortunate, as several members of the group find the dish too spicy. One woman drowns her portion in the white yogurt sauce but still doesn’t manage to finish the meal.  

Although the group meets at NYU, few are affiliated with the university. Muhammed Jawad, 32, has been coming to the center for two years and drives for an hour from his home in central New Jersey to be here. “I get to speak to a faith leader who I can identify with,” says Jawad. “I can’t represent myself until I know what I believe in,” he says, explaining that the halaqa gives him a better-rounded understanding of his faith. He uses these lessons to help him better talk about Islam to his peers, particularly as he feels the religion is often misrepresented.

Ali Alvi, 37, is an entrepreneur and also uses the lessons of the Quran in his daily life. Tonight, the message of remembering not to be distracted by those seeking only earthly vanities has particularly resonated with him. “I’m going through a situation with someone who’s doing that,” Alvi says. Studying the Quran tonight has reminded him to steer clear of that individual, he says, “because Satan is all around.”