Two Muslim families responsible for Christianity’s holiest shrine. Why?

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City is Christianity’s most hallowed shrine. It’s believed that the rock-cut tomb at the heart of the church was where the body of Jesus Christ was once laid.

Over the past week, for the first time in centuries, a team of conservationists and researchers removed a marble slab that lay in a rotunda, known as the Edicule, at the center of the complex. It’s the spot, as my colleague William Booth put it earlier this year, when the renovation project first began, “where millions of pilgrims have knelt and prayed, where the salt of tears and the wet of sweat have smoothed and worried the hardest stone.”

[Work begins to try to save Christianity’s holiest shrine: Jesus’ tomb]

After hours of careful examination, the team found what they believe was the limestone bed where Jesus could have been buried. National Geographic had exclusive access to the project and published pictures and footage of its efforts.

“I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this,” Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence, is quoted by the publication’s website. “We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.” They have now resealed the tomb in its original marble cladding.

The debate will go on about whether this is the true site of religion’s most famous crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Whatever the provenance of the story — which, after all, led to the church’s original construction some 1,600 years ago — it is now layered in centuries of real history.

Here’s Booth with a quick synopsis:

Today, the site thrums with piety, but history knows it is soaked in blood. There have been at least four Christian chapels erected over the site. The first was by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, who swept aside a pagan temple Hadrian built to the goddess Aphrodite — perhaps a move by Rome to deny early Christians a place of pilgrimage. The Holy Sepulchre was saved by the Muslim conqueror Omar in 638; destroyed by the Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim in 1009; rebuilt by the Crusaders who themselves slaughtered half the city; protected again by the Muslim conqueror Saladin and laid waste again by the fearsome Khwarezmian Turks, whose horsemen rode into the church and lopped off the heads of praying monks.

And when the world surrounding the religious complex was not convulsed in chaos, tensions among the faithful worshiping within often boiled over. The church has been shared for centuries by six old Christian congregations — Latin (Roman Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Copts.

Disputes among these sects over the sharing of the church have sparked skirmishes and street riots. Through the ages, clerics from the various orders have battled over the ritual sweeping of steps, the placing of carpets in front of altars, and even the right of walking in procession to the Edicule.

“The rival groups of worshipers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candle sticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines,” wrote historian Orlando Figes, when referring to a particularly pitched battle between Orthodox and Catholic clergymen in 1846. “The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshipers of either side.”

The animosities linger to the present day and have inhibited much-needed repairs and structural improvements to the site. In 2009, a bloody brawl broke out between Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests and led to the church being flooded by Israeli riot police. Other recent incidents were summed up by a blogger at the time:

In 2002, a Coptic monk whose job is to sit on the roof to express the Coptics’ claims to the Ethiopian part of the roof (!) moved his chair into the shade. The Ethiopians objected to this, and a fight erupted that put 11 monks in the hospital.

In 2004, an Orthodox monk allegedly left the door open to the Franciscan chapel after a procession. The Franciscans took this as a sign of disrespect, and several arrests were made after the ensuing fistfight.

In April 2008, on Palm Sunday, another brawl broke out after an Orthodox monk was ejected from the building. When police arrived to stop the fighting, the monks went after them, too.

And this year, The Washington Post was on hand to watch scuffles break out between monks and onlookers observing the Miracle of the Holy Fire.

The intractable nature of these rivalries has led to a rather curious, unique arrangement that dates to the 12th century: Two Muslim families were entrusted by a presumably weary Arab potentate to be the gatekeepers of the church. The Joudeh family keeps the key, while the Nuseibeh family opens up the church door every morning and locks it in the evening.

In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Adeeb Joudeh, the current keeper of the key — an old, cast-iron object that’s a foot long — considered his family’s hereditary task to be a metaphor for religious tolerance.

“For me, the source of coexistence for Islamic and Christian religions is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said.

His counterpart, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, described the vital role of these two Muslim families in Jerusalem to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005.

“Like all brothers, they sometimes have problems,” he said, referring to the feuding Christian sects. “We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church. We are the United Nations. We help preserve peace in this holy place.”


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