From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Row seethes in Bethlehem over keys to the

Date Fri, 15 Aug 2003 14:38:40 -0500

Note #7882 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Row seethes in Bethlehem over keys to the birthplace of Jesus
August 15, 2003

Row seethes in Bethlehem over keys to the birthplace of Jesus

By Ross Dunn
Ecumenical News International

JERUSALEM - The Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem has angered the Roman
Catholic and Armenian churches in the Holy Land by asserting sole control
over the "locks and keys" to the Church of the Nativity, revered by many as
marking the birthplace of Jesus.

"We claim we are the possessors of the keys, we are the guardians of the door
[at the Church of the Nativity]," Archbishop Aristarchos, of the Greek
Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem told ENI.

He acknowledged that the Greek Orthodox monks at the site had changed the
locks and refused to share the keys, evoking the outrage of the Catholics and

A set of rules known as the "Status Quo" set down by the Ottoman rulers of
the Holy Land in 1852, who were Muslims, prescribes the spaces that Greek
Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Christians can use for worship in
the Church of the Nativity.

The rules stipulate that Greek Orthodox monks are responsible for opening and
closing the church doors each day. At the same time, the Catholics and
Armenians are also entitled to hold keys.

Archbishop Aristarchos said that the decision was triggered after the door
was opened, by either (Catholic) Franciscan or Armenian monks, without the
permission of the Greek Orthodox Church.

"We insist on our rights," said Aristarchos in a reference to the Greek
Orthodox claim to be the only group with the right to take such an action. He
noted that letters had been written both to Catholic and Armenian leaders,
setting out the Greek Orthodox position, with the hope that the sides could
"finally solve their dispute."

The row has aggravated relations between the Armenian Patriarch, Archbishop
Torkom Manoogian and his Greek counterpart Patriarch Irineos.

In an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, Manoogian described
Irineos as "capricious and self-serving." A spokesperson for Archbishop
Manoogian also described the decision as a "vicious trick by the Greeks."

"They think that by refusing to give us the keys they are protecting their
rights but they are clearly unaware of the sensitivity of the Status Quo,"
the Armenian Patriarch's spokesperson said.

The latest clash over the keys began after the sacred shrine was caught in
the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bitter stand-off last

A group of Palestinian militants fleeing from Israeli troops took refuge in
the church and refused to give themselves up for weeks, before the two sides
reached a negotiated settlement to the incident.

Several of the Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the siege
and their bodies were taken from the church by Franciscans. Unable to find
their keys at the time, the Franciscans turned to the Armenians who lent them
their own.

But the Greek Orthodox monks objected to the doors being opened without their
permission to remove the corpses.

The Greek Orthodox monks were also reported to have been furious that their
Franciscan counterparts allowed Muslim prayers to be recited over the dead
Palestinians, within a section of the church that is controlled by the Greek

Each of the three churches is passionate about their rights within the
sanctuary and fears they could lose them forever under any changes to the
Status Quo.

Bethlehem has been under Palestinian self-rule since 1995 and the Palestinian
Authority says it will try to mediate between the various denominations at
the Church of the Nativity.

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