In my Dutch blog (see below) I started to answer this question but got side tracked in explaining why these scuffles are indeed interesting: as part of the boundary skirmishes that ritually take place before and during important events in the two major shared churches, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem) and the Nativity Church (Bethlehem) in the Holy Land – at least one or two times every year, with Easter and with Christmas, during cleaning, or during processions. Once in a while all the faithful should realize how exactly the boundaries between the Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Catholic were drawn in the mid-19th c., and how these lines are still with us today.
This is interesting stuff, especially because I suspect that today’s broom fight reflects some of the increased tensions over the restoration of the church, badly needed for many years, initiated by het Palestinian Authority a year or so back, boosted by their recent UN bid, and contentious among the communities that use the church. Not that they are not convinced something has to be done, but paying for repairs, as much as cleaning, may alter the rights of usage of each and everyone in the church. Who’s to pay for what and when? Some tension over these major changes is quite understandable, as is some brawling by young and eager monks …
However, most of today’s commentators seem to have missed both its rituality and its link to current Palestinian affairs and this therefore does not explain the world wide fascination with these scuffles. Part of the fascination, of course, is the obvious tension between Christianity’s ideals of peace on earth and its reality of fighting clergy – especially when the fighting is so visually satisfying with nice new brooms that seem to have been bought just for the occasion. No deaths, no seriously wounded … we all love to watch a good fight, especially when it confirms our preconceptions about Christianity, clergy, and the Holy Land – yes, of course, it must also have something to do with the fact that it happens in Bethlehem, in the Church of the Nativity, in the week following Catholic and Protestant Christmas, in preparation for Orthodox Christmas – if a fight seems out of place, then this one, there and now.
Perhaps most importantly, the place is well-known: with Jerusalem, this is among the most visited places on earth – and even those who haven’t visited, know the place from television broadcasts and countless photographs. And with the worldwide exposure and familiarity, also comes the feeling of belonging, of possession even: this church is not just any church. Rather, it is one of those few churches that belong to the world as a whole, not just to the Christians of Palestine – and as such the onlookers want a share in that church – positively or negatively. And in this, they are not so different from the clergy that started to fight this afternoon – they too represent an international community rather than a few local Christians. And this, in conclusion, furnishes yet another reason to see their fight not merely as local tensions getting out of hand, but as part of boundary skirmishes of huge international communities with high stakes in the Holy Land. Orthodox and Catholic Christians everywhere want a symbolic share in this church, a church that formed one of the reasons for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, and that until today, together with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, constitutes one of the most powerful images of worldwide ecumenical Christianity – as was symbolically underlined today by the inevitable boundary skirmishes. And while most that posted and re-posted today’s footage are not aware of all this, they unwittingly become part of this long train of global involvement in the Holy Land – for a laugh or a cry, for better or for worse.