In the Holy Land, Six Christian Faiths Jockey for Power at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

As published in New Lines magazine

Aba Sibhat, an Ethiopian priest, types into his phone with a curious grin before he holds the Android device up to me.

“The Egyptian monks want to steal our church,” reads the text, Google-translated from Amharic. 

For someone whose people have been at possible risk of eviction for more than 400 years, Sibhat looks relaxed, donning mirrored sunglasses as he sits under the shade of a tree on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To Christians, this church, built on the site where people believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, is the holiest place in the Holy Land.

This Holy Week, however, might change his laid-back demeanor. During the days preceding Easter, which falls this year on April 9 for the Catholic and Protestant churches and on April 16 for the Orthodox Church, this rooftop becomes an ideological battlefield, where the Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic churches come to blows. At times, literally. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre may well be the only church in the world where six of the most ancient Christian branches worship while rubbing shoulders. According to “Saving the Holy Sepulchre,” a book by Hebrew University professor Raymond Cohen, major communities like the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox churches have rights of possession and usage of all holy spots. The smaller Egyptian Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches have limited rights to use the holiest places and almost no property rights over them. Instead, they preside over the other chapels, passageways and monasteries that sit close to the tomb of Jesus Christ. However, the Ethiopians have no rights in the church at all. They get to use only the roof.

In July 2002, a Coptic monk brought a chair up to the roof and sat under the shade of a tree — an action some interpreted as an act of war. Violent clashes quickly erupted between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. Priests on both sides rolled up the sleeves of their God-ordained robes to throw ungodly punches and, in the melee, seven Ethiopian monks and four Coptic monks were injured.

Landlord quarrels do not tend to be resolved through the archaic, brute force methods of our ancestors but, in this case, such fistfights seem oddly fitting. This is because the two churches are, in fact, embroiled in perhaps one of the longest running property disputes in history. For more than 400 years, each side has purported to own the Deir al-Sultan monastery, which is located on the rooftop of the Chapel of Saint Helena. Because access to the courtyard where the monastery is located is through two adjoining chapels, ownership of all three is hotly contested. So is the right to repair a broken tile or sweep the floor, with any act possibly amounting to a claim of ownership.

Although the Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic churches have gotten into minor scuffles for centuries, things have been heating up again, said Hana Bendcowsky, a historian of the Christian quarter who works for the Rossing Center, a local Jewish-Christian interfaith organization. The Ethiopian monks have become more brazen, she said, perhaps as a result of growing nationalism against the backdrop of a civil conflict back home or because they have a larger African Christian population in the Old City, spurred by the arrival of several thousand Ethiopian and Eritrean asylum seekers, the latter of which totaled 71% of Israel’s 30,000 asylum seekers in 2020.

In 2018, the Ethiopian monks placed their flag on the roof and erected a tent, marking the monastery as their own and riling up the Egyptians, who responded by hoisting their flag alongside it and painting on one of the Ethiopians’ doors. In 2021, following a renewed flag standoff, Tarek al-Khawli, a member of Egypt’s foreign relations parliamentary committee, called the Ethiopian monks’ actions “thuggery.” This political reprimand did little to defuse the tension. Last year, the flag wars started again.

Fadi, who owns a souvenir shop in the no man’s land between the two feuding churches, is sure something will happen again during Holy Week. “It is a show, it is an act,” he said. “They have to do it every year to prove ‘this is our monastery.’”

The Ethiopians argue they have an early claim to Christianity’s holy sites, as some of the religion’s first supporters. They trace their presence in Jerusalem back to pre-biblical times, pointing to the story of the Queen of Sheba’s encounter with King Solomon around 1000 BCE. They also reference written accounts of Abyssinian people from European visitors, such as Jeronimo Lobo in the fifth century and Barbore Morsini in the 17th century.

The Copts, however, see the Ethiopian church as an offspring gone rogue. “Whatever you have is actually ours,” Bendcowsky says in explaining the Copts’ perspective.

When Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the fourth century, its new church was a “bishopric” of the Church of Alexandria and dependent on it. For centuries, all 111 of Ethiopia’s bishops were Egyptians, and the Ethiopians often brought the Copts gifts in the form of gold and animals to keep the archbishops coming, noted David Spielman, a historian of the Horn of Africa and visiting professor at New York University who focuses on early modern Christian Ethiopia. It wasn’t until 1951 that the Ethiopians called for their church’s independence and got their first Ethiopian patriarch, breaking the ancient Christian bond between the two countries. But, despite their emancipation, “this connection is always in the background of their relationship,” Bendcowsky says. 

The Copts further claim that the Ethiopians are still present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre only because of their church’s charity. For centuries, the Ethiopians had their own chapels inside the main church but grew extremely poor under Ottoman rule, cut off from the homeland and their emperor’s coffers, writes Kirsten Stoffregen Pedersen, a Danish nun and religious chronicler, in “The Holy Land Christians.” Around the 16th century, the Ethiopians, unable to pay the hefty taxes demanded by the Turks, lost all of their property rights to the Armenians and the Greeks. They managed to remain housed in the Deir al-Sultan monastery thanks only to the Copts.

In this case, kindness came at a price. According to Ethiopian accounts, when a plague (at times reported as a cholera epidemic) in 1838 killed all the Ethiopian priests at Deir al-Sultan, the Copts took the opportunity to reassert their claim with the blessing of Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian ruler who occupied the city of Jerusalem from 1831 until 1840. They burned all of the documents in the Ethiopians’ library, including their title deeds, arguing they were contaminated. The Copts got the keys to the chapels and the monastery, and the new Ethiopian arrivals became their guests. They were then relegated to the rooftop, where they built mud huts, later described derogatively by the BBC as reminiscent of a “basic African village,” and were forced to celebrate their Easter services under a tent in the courtyard. 

Sibhat, the Ethiopian priest, shows me around these huts, though some sections look more like a Mediterranean fishing village — the walls of his small abode are painted in white chalk, his door a dark green to match the flowering trees and the artificial grass that is draped over a walkway.

Sibhat is proud of his amenities, showing off his fridge (which takes up an eighth of the narrow room), a kettle and the small light fixtures hanging overhead. The miracle of electricity and running water were a gift of the Jordanian government, which decided to upgrade the Ethiopians’ living quarters in 1966. Apparently, this did not please the Copts, who now prevent the Ethiopians from renovating their spaces, Sibhat says. 

Written accounts suggest that, since antiquity, the Ethiopians have not been treated as “guests” as much as they have been barely tolerated residents. Samuel Gobat, an Anglican bishop who visited the monks several times in the 19th century, noted in a letter dated 1852 that the Ethiopians “were both intelligent and respectable, yet they were treated like slaves, or rather like beasts by the Copts and the Armenians combined.” The letter continued: They “could never enter their own chapel but when it pleased the Armenians to open it” and, on one occasion, were unable to “get their chapel opened to perform the funeral service for one of their members.”

That same year, it appears that the Ottomans grew tired of playing mediator to the many long-running disputes that sprung from the holy sites and reasserted a decree that had first been issued in 1757 but had been little adhered to. The “Declaration of the Status Quo in the Holy Places” proclaimed that whatever a religious group controlled or shared control of at that time would remain so: You could not ask for more, but you would not get less. To capture how significant this milestone was, one need only glance at a rickety ladder that has remained perched outside the entrance of the main church since the early 1800s — placed by the Armenians to have access to the balcony and angering the Greeks who shared it. No one is allowed to move it lest it disrupt the status quo.

Under this new decree, the Deir al-Sultan monastery would be shared by the Ethiopians and the Copts, while the two small adjoining chapels of St. Michael and the Four Living Creatures would be under the control of the Copts.

Yet, as any divorcee knows, forever can have an expiration date.

To get to the monastery, instead of walking through the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one turns right, where a small door awaits and a quiet Ethiopian monk wearing a biretta nods and smiles at curious passersby. This chapel of St. Michael is constantly guarded by an Ethiopian, as is the second chapel of the Four Living Persons that sits between the lower level and the rooftop courtyard. But those who pay close attention (or are experts on Orthodox art) will notice that the iconostasis inside these Ethiopian-controlled spaces looks strangely Coptic, Bendcowsky notes. In other words, they are Egyptian-style.

The reason for the guards is that, with Israel occupying the Old City and the West Bank in 1967, the Ethiopian monks saw their fortune quickly change, and they took the opportunity to reassert their claim once more.

In a story recounted by Cohen in “Saving the Holy Sepulchre,” just after midnight on Easter Sunday in 1970, as Anba Basilios, the Coptic archbishop of Jerusalem, was leading prayer with his monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Ethiopian monks used the cover of night to change the locks on the doors at both ends of the passageway — locking the adjoining chapels.

Basilus, upon hearing of this insurrection mid-prayer, asked one of his monks to check on the doors, where an Israel police officer stopped him in his pious tracks. Other monks who went the long way around to reach the upper level of the passageway found more police officers guarding the door to the second chapel. 

On April 28, 1970, the Copts went to court to have the locks removed. Unfortunately for them, no court has the authority to decide on the merits of this or any other dispute. Property disputes with a religious flavor have fallen under the government’s purview since 1924, when the civil courts were told they could not deal with any “cause or matter” related to the Holy Places, religious buildings or sites. What the court could and did do was make a strong, moral declaration and hope the government would act on it. 

In its decision on March 16, 1971, Israel’s supreme court criticized the police’s passive actions and ordered the Ethiopians to hand the new keys back. And even though the Israeli government had the right to create a committee to resolve the dispute and proposed doing so following the legal ruling, nothing in that vein has been set up in the five decades since. 

But the fight over the Deir al-Sultan monastery does not exist in a political vacuum. Diplomatic jockeying has had an effect on ownership and access rights equal to that of claims of divine or historic prerogative, and the Ethiopian monks have benefited from certain collusion on the international stage.

In the 1950s, the newly born state of Israel had developed a burgeoning friendship with Ethiopia, as both were wary of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. For Ethiopia, the latter’s support for Eritrean independence was annoying at best. 

Israel’s overtures to Ethiopia, on the other hand, were focused on its location close to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, an important choke point that connected the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and gave Israel trade access to Asia and Africa. In return for doling out modest amounts of economic development aid to Ethiopia — including via a police training program — Israel received access to the country’s ports, which was vital, as Ethiopia was the only country with a Red Sea coastline hospitable to Israeli ships. 

So strong was their bond that, in 1973, the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi threatened to boycott, rather than celebrate, the Organization of African Unity’s 10th anniversary unless the venue — the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa — was changed, accusing the hosts of supporting “the Zionist enemy.” As African countries severed ties with Israel, Ethiopia quietly remained an ally, accepting clandestine assistance.

This made sense in the new world order. The Derg, the communist regime that deposed Ethiopia’s emperor in 1974, was convinced that several of its Arab neighbors wished to turn the Red Sea corridor into an “Arab Lake,” aspiring to impose an “anti-Ethiopian puppet regime in Eritrea that would join the Arab League.” Israel appeared to sympathize with this view, albeit quietly, training the future bodyguards of President Mengistu Haile Mariam as well as paratrooper and counterinsurgency units belonging to the Fifth Division.

While being outwardly pro-Palestine, Ethiopia accepted Israeli air-to-air missiles, napalm, cluster bombs and spare parts for its tanks and planes to fight against neighboring Somalia and an Eritrean uprising in 1977 and 1978. Israelis were expelled only once news of their illicit affair became public in 1978, when Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan confirmed press reports that Israel was selling arms to Ethiopia’s Marxist government.

The ties are even stronger thanks to another religious connection. “Ethiopia is viewed by Jews largely as almost a place where brothers or long-lost family are from,” Spielman explains. Thousands of Beta Israel, as Ethiopian Jews are known, were airlifted to Israel in 1984 and 1991 in several rescue missions. This year, about 1,500 are expected to make aliyah, according to the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which sponsors many of their flights.

Historically, even the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been viewed as “too Jewish,” Spielman notes. In the Middle Ages, Ewostatewos was one of the Orthodox priests who advocated for the Sabbath. His Judaizing ideas landed him in a Coptic court in Cairo, where he was charged for wanting to observe the Jewish day of rest as well as Sunday, writes historian Tadesse Tamrat in “Church and State in Ethiopia.” Though Ewostatewos was ultimately exiled, Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church has maintained the tradition — Saturdays are off. 

This religious history has contributed to the current controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It does not help that, in the past, Ethiopian emperors have “threatened to block the Nile in retaliation” for the persecution of Christians by Egypt, Spielman recounts. That Egyptians now appear to suspect Israeli involvement and have levied accusations that it has helped Ethiopia build and defend the dam is rooted in this historical drama. The Israeli Embassy in Cairo posted a tweet on July 18, 2021, denying such claims, after reports (that were also denied) that Israel had supplied missile batteries to the Ethiopians and its engineers were working within Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, dishing out advice and supervising some work on the dam, as detailed by Zvi Barel in an article published in Haaretz in 2021. 

In a strange, indirect way, the Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem continue to benefit from the trickling down of political games. As long as Ethiopia remains in good standing with Israel and Egypt is seen as an ongoing or potential threat, certain monks will likely continue getting preferential treatment over others, their brazen actions going unchallenged (or protected by guards), even if it means ignoring the status quo.

On Easter night, Ethiopians — dressed in their traditional white gabi robes and woven cotton dresses — congregate on the rooftop with candles to celebrate the miracle of the Holy Fire. To them, the presence of Ethiopian monks in the holiest place in Jerusalem is more than just a point of pride. It serves to validate the deep roots of their faith, the community’s long ties to the region and to a religion that has shaped its kingdom, country and people. 

Celebrating, however, is becoming harder and harder each year.

This is because Ethiopian Christians in Israel face a two-fold challenge. Not only have they faced historical discrimination for being Black, but they are also at a disadvantage as non-Jews. One Ethiopian Christian woman residing in Tel Aviv commented that her work colleagues think she is an Ethiopian Jew, an assumption she has never corrected because “passing” as one is easier in this climate. She even decided against getting a tattoo of an Ethiopian cross to avoid questioning glances. 

But the Copts are suffering, too, amid a rise in Jewish attacks on Christian sites in Israel, coupled with an ever-dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land, which has struck fear in the community. Mother Agapia, a U.S.-born Russian Orthodox nun who used to live in Jerusalem, suggests that this period of infighting and insecurity could serve to “unite the Christian communities.”

Bendcowsky appears to agree. Despite the forced coexistence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place “functions in a miraculous way,” she says, with all its pilgrims, tourists, liturgies and monks — a message she tries to emphasize at the end of her tours of the Christian quarter. 

Sibhat and the other Ethiopian and Coptic monks are part of the same team. Certainly, they are considered ecclesiastical siblings, and the only true owner of these assets is the common God to whom they pray.