As Christian site crumbles, conflict over ownership delays repairs

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)

The hardship of living in Jesus’ birthplace

BEIT SAHOUR — “We starve sometimes for a drop of water.”

This quote has been replaying in my head over and over ever since Wednesday night when we divided up into small groups to spend the night with different families in Palestine. Our group, Sarah, Augusta, Thea, Isobel and myself, spent the evening at the Khair home in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. Raed Khair picked us up and brought us to the house. We were immediately greeted by his wife, Therese, their 15-year-old twins, Mais and Majd, and three Christian pilgrims from Texas who were also there for dinner.

The first thing I noticed was that the family was East Orthodox Christian. Therese mentioned this to us early on, but it was clear from the giant rosary that stretched from floor to ceiling on the living room wall. Depictions of the Last Supper featured heavily in house décor, in frames and hanging on key chains.

At first, it was a little awkward. No one quite knew how to begin a conversation as we started eating a grain soup and drank lemonade made with lemons from Raed and Therese’s garden. Conversation began to come a little easier as we ate the main course: chicken with vegetables (seasoned with seven different spices) and stuffed zucchini. The pilgrims couldn’t stay for long, and after they left we had dessert: bananas, grain cake and tea with sage. We started to talk about what life is like for the Khair family.

(Clockwise from left) Sarah Wyman, Therese Khair, Mais Khair, Thea Piltzecker, Augusta Anthony, Majd Khair, Raed Khair and Steph Beckett share a family meal in the Khair home (Godland News / Isobel van Hagen)

She told us that she tries to invite pilgrims and visitors from other countries to their home about every four months so that they can learn more about Palestinian life and culture.

The story is not a simple one. There is bad and there is good. “We are trying to encourage everyone to come,” said Therese. “It’s safe and secure.”

“I like to exchange our stories together,” she said.

On the other hand, she added: “The obstacles that we face every day… the future of our kids. It’s very sad.”

Therese told us about some of the things that Palestinians in Bethlehem struggle to do. Maintaining a steady stream of water is one of them – Palestinians use water tanks on top of their houses for their water supply. The problem is that when the tanks empty, families have to wait up to four weeks for a fresh supply. Therese, with the occasional interjection in Arabic from Raed, told us that when the water runs out, the family will have to run the faucet for a few times per day, hoping they’ll catch the moment when the water returns. During most summers, they don’t get to water the plants in their garden.

We ended the dinner by helping Therese peel khubeizeh leaves off their stems, piling them on a platter for her to cook later in the week. Khubeizeh is a green vegetable that is typically sautéed with onions. It was then in our conversation that I realized how, in some ways, we are strikingly similar. Therese wakes up every morning and makes her kids breakfast and packs them lunch. She takes them to school, then goes to work as a nurse. She picks them up and makes dinner. It’s a normal life.

“We are good people,” she said. “We are humans. We should have our freedom and basic needs.”

But there are parts of her life that are totally alien to me. Like others in the occupied territories, the Khairs can’t move freely. There are Israeli checkpoints on many entrances and exits to the city. To travel internationally, they have to fly out of the airport in Jordan rather than the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv. For a family living such a normal life, they also feel trapped. Raed had Therese translate a sentence that also still replays in my head:

“You are living better than we do.”


Voices from Godland, Episode 1: The Báb

Godland brings you to the city of Haifa and the resting place of the Báb — the most revered figure of the most popular religion you’ve never heard of. Augusta Anthony visits the spiritual center of the Baha’i faith.


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.


Family man, not elves, behind Christmas treasures in Bethlehem

BEIT SAHOUR — Pilgrims and tourists buy souvenirs to remember their visit to the Holy Land, but for Ghassan Qumsieh, the trinkets are his form of survival.

Qumsieh, born in Palestine, got up from the dinner table eager to show his family’s guests – us, two Americans, and our teacher, Professor Haroon Moghul – his creation.

“One minute, one minute,” he said in English slowly. Qumsieh walked across the kitchen and retrieved a miniature nativity scene from a shelf. He placed it near our dinner plates, which were now cleaned after a few helpings of makloubeh, a dish of rice with cauliflower and potatoes, served with chicken and a side of yogurt.

The main dish: makluheh, made with rice, cauliflower and potatoes. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Qumsieh, an Orthodox Catholic, takes pride in his craft. He proudly presented one of his nativity pieces – complete with baby Jesus and wise men figurines. Using various motions like a game of Charades, and the English he knows, he explained how he carefully cut the pieces and glued them together to create tourist treasures. He twisted the star at the top of the wooden barn site and a slow melody began to play.

Qumsieh’s days begin early and end late. After an 11-hour workday at his shop, he will sometimes come home, take a quick nap, and work on various trinkets until 1 a.m. This time of the year, with Easter approaching, the job is more arduous, as more tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem. But more business, more money.

“Life here is very expensive,” he told us.

His earnings support the home he bought about a decade ago – a modest but cozy three-bedroom fifth-floor unit in Beit Sahour, a little town outside of Bethlehem. The living room is adorned with Christian memorabilia, like a larger-than-life rosary tucked behind a family photo, an assortment of plants, and a picture of Jesus. The coffee table is lined with charms from his workshop, packaged and ready for the Easter crowds. On the kitchen counter sits a large box of wooden crosses and accessories yet to be glued together. “I’m very happy here,” he tells us.

Completed olive wood necklaces – often the result of a late night's work – line the coffee table at the Qumsieh home. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

It wasn’t an easy journey. Qumsieh was forced to leave the country for Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967. He worked day and night at a minimart to start a new life only to repeat the process after his father died and he returned to the West Bank.

But his tenacity has paid off, a fact that’s apparent by interacting with his daughters – two confident and ambitious teens, who served both as hosts and, after Professor Moghul departed, our translators for the rest of evening when their parents’ English failed. Siwar is a boisterous and confident 14-year-old, who enjoys cooking – a skill she learned from watching “Top Chef” on television. “I want to be a chef,” she says, briefly glancing up from her cell phone. Her older sister, Nadine, 18, graduates this year from high school. Thanks to the hard work by Qumsieh and his wife, Rula, a history teacher, Nadine will go on to college, where she plans to study hotel management.

Qumsieh holds his hand-crafted nativity scene. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

His fatherly instincts transferred over to his houseguests, too. “You’re my daughters, too,” he told us. When we left the next morning, he gifted us each with two of his Christian ornaments. As he plucked them in our hands, he smiled and said, “So you will remember me.”