Jill Hamilton
The Guardian
October 26, 2010 - 12:00am

This week Mahmoud Abbas confronted yet another impasse in the peace talks with Israel. However, on Monday, when he visited the 1,500 year-old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the alleged birthplace of Christ, he could boast a significant triumph in a longstanding stalemate.

Walking around ladders and scaffolding he saw engineers and architects carrying out the first ever full survey on the church. This five-month long programme, initiated by the Palestinian Authority, is headed by Professor Remigio Rossi of Rome, who won the competitive international tender. Massive building works will begin in February after completion of investigations into the damage to the roof, foundations, walls, mosaics and frescoes.

For decades rain has penetrated the 500-year-old lead roof, but local church politics stood in the way of critical repairs. Water runs down its internal walls, causing decay and condensation. A rotting cross beam is a serious problem – as is the risk of electrical short-circuit and fire. Major repairs to the church were last carried out in 1842, following an earthquake.

Since then urgent restoration has been prevented by arguments over who has the right to restore the collapsing roof amongst the three Christian denominations which share the custody of this monumental 6th century structure – the Greek Orthodox Church, the Latins (Roman Catholics) under the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Orthodox.

"We own over 80% of the church," explained Theopolus, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, adding that the most visited part of this Byzantine church, the Grotto, "is owned by the Greeks and the Latins".

Not only has the Palestinian Authority intervened, it has already designated a million dollars into a special building fund. It is assumed that the churches and other donors will also put cash into the account which needs between $12–$20 million.

"The Church of the Nativity is the most important building in the West Bank," said the chairman of the presidential committee for the restoration of the church, Ziyad Bandak, adding "and Jesus was a Palestinian".

Last week, the tensions that led to frequent deadlocks between the churches over building maintenance were on display when a Greek Orthodox priest carried a mop and a bucket of water up from the grotto via the staircase belonging to the Franciscans. An Armenian priest blocked the way by closing a door, leaving hapless tourists stranded at the bottom of the stairs, unable to leave the grotto for two hours.

Disputes over cleaning and a bucket sound minor, but similar disagreements between the co-owners date back to the Crusades.

"Each church has to protect its historical rights," said Father Athanasius Macora, the Franciscan director of the status quo of the holy places, introduced by the Ottomans just prior to the Crimean war. "One precedent can erode your ability to defend your position."

Bandak is holding discussions between the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox in an attempt to pre-empt further clashes. As previously, police were called in last year after a brawl erupted during a cleaning session and ended with black eyes, bruises and bloody cuts when robed priests went at each other with brooms and stones.

French and Russian interference over the disappearance of a key and a star was one of the causes which sparked the Crimean war. Karl Marx never visited Palestine, but when working as a journalist he wrote in the New York Herald Tribune of April 1854: " … the battle conducted by the monks, and the ostensible object of their rivalry being a star from the grotto of Bethlehem, a tapestry, a key of a sanctuary, an altar, a shrine, a chair, a cushion – any ridiculous precedence! ... these sacred rows merely conceal a profane battle."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017