"And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…"

When my brothers and I were little, our parents would cram all four of us into the station wagon and go on cross-country car-trips. We used to divide up the back seat into respective territories, and a relative peace between siblings would be maintained until one of us violated the border (“Mom! — Jon is crossing over the line!!!”).

Needless to say we grew up . . .

Seven hurt in punch-up at Church of the Nativity Times Online UK. December 29, 2007:

The cradle of Christianity was rocked by an unholy punch-up when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

The ancient place of worship, built over the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago, is shared by various branches of Christianity, each of which controls and jealously guards a part of the holy site.

The brawl apparently began when Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church after the Christmas Day celebrations.

Armenian priests claimed that the ladders encroached on their portion of the church, which led the two sects to exchange angry words which quickly turned to blows.

Witnesses said that the robed and bearded priests scuffled for more than an hour using fists, brooms and iron rods as weapons.

Photographers who came to document the annual cleaning ceremony instead recorded the entire event.

Five priests were lightly injured in the melee, which was eventually broken up by a dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen. Two of the policemen were hurt in ending the brawl.

From earlier this year, Benjamin Balint wrote on ‘The Mother of All Churches’ [Church of the Holy Sepulchre] in Jerusalem (Wall Street Journal July 27, 2007):

Back in 1869, Mark Twain visited and noticed the denominations chanting, sometimes simultaneously, in their own languages: “It has been proven conclusively that they can not worship together around the grave of the Saviour of the World in peace.” And the cease-fire’s fragility persists to this day.

Five years ago, Ethiopians, exiled since 1658 to quarters on the roof, resented the placement of a Coptic priest’s chair there, and the ensuing brawl sent 11 monks–seven Ethiopians and four Copts–to the hospital. A couple of years later, Greek clerics tussled with Franciscans.

The turf wars also paralyze maintenance. A wooden ladder has rested on a ledge over the church’s entrance for at least 150 years. The edicule, braced with scaffolding, is falling apart. The Chapel of St. Nicodemus, over which both the Armenians and the Syrians claim ownership, has for that reason never been restored. To prevent denominational disputes, the very keys to the church have since the days of Saladin been entrusted to Muslims from the Nuseibeh and Joudeh families.

Recently, Father Athanasius Macora, negotiator on Holy Sepulcher issues for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (which represents Roman Catholics in Israel), showed me several large color-coded maps, signed and sealed by the heads of the three patriarchates, which detailed even which sewage lines belong to which rite. Even the repair of a pipe requires ecumenical negotiation.

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