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)

Violence in the Old City as our trip comes to an end

JERUSALEM — Today was our last day in the Holy Land, or Godland, if you will. Our schedule deemed it a “reporting day” and, for the first time in a week, we didn’t have a set schedule. There were no places to see or people to meet; everything was up to us. Most of us took this opportunity to report (or shop for gifts and souvenirs) and finish tying up loose ends on the stories we’ve been thinking about all week.

I spent a lot of this day at the Western Wall: thinking about the time we spent there as a class and reflecting on how I could use the conversations I’d had with different pilgrims throughout the week to create something that might resemble a good news story. My colleagues did similar things: Augusta spent her day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sarah spent her day taking a tour of Jerusalem’s water tunnels, Dan visited an evangelical church in Bethlehem and Vildana and Isobel were reporting on cross-bearers in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.

But things didn’t go as expected. This afternoon at one of the gates of the Old City, an Israeli security guard was wounded in what police said was a stabbing attack. The assailant was killed at the scene. The security guard was taken to the hospital. As journalists, we’re trained to see this as news and almost expect these things to happen. We live in New York City, after all. But today, after everything we’ve seen, done and experienced all week, it weighed on us more than it normally would have.

Vildana and Isobel were at the gate when it happened.

“We heard a scuffle and someone being beaten, and then a few seconds later we started hearing gunshots,” Isobel said. She estimated she was five meters from the scene when she and Vildana sought shelter from the gunfire, pressing themselves against a stone wall.

According to a report by Haaretz, the assailant was from the West Bank, and belonged to the Hamas party there, although he is not considered to be an active member. Hamas commended the attack in a statement, saying that it commemorated 100 days since President Donald Trump declared the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the moment, everything was “super surreal,” Isobel said. “Afterwards, it was clear that tensions are still running very high in the city and it was a rude awakening to that.”

After the attack, some shops closed and guards stayed at the gate, ensuring that the area was safe. Some of the holy sites in Jerusalem also shut down, al-Haram al-Sharif being one of them; Professor Moghul was locked inside for about an hour. Tensions were high until we all touched base with one another.

I rushed with my classmates Dan and Galie to the Old City, in hopes that someone would be able to tell me what happened before it was all over the news. I found myself back at the Western Wall and talked to one of the women there. We were both trying to understand what happened. It turned out I knew more than she did.

“Be careful and God bless you,” she said before hugging me tightly. “God will protect you. He protects his people.”

Thea did a quick WhatsApp check and made sure that all of our classmates and faculty were accounted for. I don’t know who protected us today, but I am thankful that we are all safe. We met for dinner back at our hotel just in time for everyone to talk about this day and the experiences of the week. We celebrated being together, learning and growing throughout this journey. We traded stories of our best encounters, our favorite jokes and the religions we would switch to for a week if we could.

My favorite part of this trip was learning so much about the world around me. This was my first time outside of the United States, and I was so grateful to enter every situation with an open mind. Today was hard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this dispatch because of how difficult it was for my colleagues to be present for something so hard to watch or hear. But they are okay and we are all safe. For that, and for Godland, I am also grateful.

We’ll see you soon, Israel/Palestine.

Photos from day 8: 


Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6:


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.