Rival Christians and the Holy Sepulchre

For all who have wondered why Christians in the Middle East, more specifically those in Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, cannot live without quarrelling, Raymond Cohen, professor at Hebrew University (Jerusalem), has written the perfect book. In a disinterested language, replete with technical, juridical and ecclesiological terms, he manages to present a clear picture of the difficult situation with which these Christians have to cope, a situation summarized in the universal language of the Status Quo, an international treaty dating back to Ottoman times, to 1852 – regulating the joint usage of the church whose ultimate ownership in Ottoman times laid, as with all religious foundations, with the Ottoman Sultan. Rather than taking the ideals of Christian cooperation and ecumenical unity as his starting point, Cohen describes the difficult reality of rivaling claims to the holiest ground of Christianity, with communities that eagerly guard their own interests because they remember times when other communities were having the upper hand (think of some major issues between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic – the Holy Sepulchre being one of the places in Jerusalem where the Crusades are still casting long shadows), and of governments (Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli) that desperately want things to be quiet and proceed without additional problems.

The most surprising conclusion of Cohen’s book is that, precisely because of the common interest in the place and the building, the twentieth century, amidst ongoing boundary quarrels, also witnessed the communal work on the restoration of the church that now has almost been finished (with a with outstanding issues still pending, among others between the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians). The book, therefore, can be read as a perfect illustration of what Christianity in the Middle East is all about – the ever-present rivalries, the ethnic components of many of the discussions, the complicated power balance within the churches, the weighty symbolic of the holy places, the tedious negotiations, the complicated relationships with the government and the international background against which these discussions play themselves out – and hopefully also of the positive outcome of at least some of the common projects that are taken on.

My review of Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) will appear in the Journal of Religion – since published: The Journal of Religion (2010) 90/3, 410-12.


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