JERUSALEM — The successful completion of vital repair and restoration projects at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem reflects a new era of cooperation between the churches’ major stakeholders.

Despite turf battles dating back centuries, the Franciscan Order (known as the “Latins” or Roman Catholics) and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches that share and maintain both the Church of the Nativity and Church of the Holy Sepulcher set aside their differences to ensure vital repairs could be carried out.

At both churches, the long repair process was completed just in time for the flood of Easter pilgrims to the Holy Land.

In an article in First Things magazine, Mark L. Movesian, who co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion, said the cooperation “reflects in part what Pope Francis has called the ‘ecumenism of blood.’ The persecution of Mideast Christians does not respect confessional boundaries.”

At a time when the Islamic State militant group is slaughtering Christians, Movesian said, “disputes about [church] lamps do not seem so vital.”

For the first time in decades, visitors to the Church of the Nativity, which dates to the fourth century, will be able to fully enjoy the beautiful artwork and centuries-old mosaics that line the walls. Throughout the church, Italian restoration specialists repaired and restored the leaky roof, replaced the windows, removed rotted infrastructure and installed modern lighting.

The repairs at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which also dates back to the fourth century, were more modest in scope but even more significant because they were focused on the “Edicule,” the 19th-century structure that covers the tomb of Christ. It was here, according to Christian tradition, that Jesus was buried and resurrected.

The structure had been in danger of collapse in recent years, and Israeli authorities had threatened to shutter the church if the Latin, Greek and Armenian Churches refused to work together to make urgent repairs.

Today’s Edicule is the fourth structure to have covered the tomb since the construction of the church under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Previous structures had been destroyed by earthquakes, fires and an Islamic caliphate takeover of Jerusalem in 1009. Since 1947 it has been shored up by metal scaffolding to prevent more of the stone exterior from detaching, a problem first identified in the 1920s. 

A team of dozens of experts led by the National Technical University of Athens, Greece, spent much of the past year repairing and reinforcing the structure’s marble and stone, which was weakened by time and blackened by pilgrims’ candles. 

And for the very first time, visitors can now see the original stone of the burial cave, thanks to a small window workers created in the Edicule’s walls. There is some concern that the foundation needs to be reinforced, according to scientists who spoke with National Geographic, so more attention to the sacred site looks likely.

 

Completion Ceremony

During the March 22 ceremony held by the three churches to celebrate the completion of work on the Edicule, Church leaders underscored the importance of working together for the common good of all Christians.

“Some did not believe the Churches could overcome their centuries-old disagreements, but the project was a sign that with God, nothing is impossible,” said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “This apparent ‘mission impossible’ became possible because we allowed God to enlighten our thoughts and our eyes and our relations.”

Archbishop Pizzaballa emphasized that “things do not change by themselves. If we are here for this celebration, it is because the different Churches and leaders were able to hear the voice of God and understand and realize and accept that it was time to build new relations between us of trust and respect.”

Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, said, “The empty tomb is the place where even physically a new creation and a new world of light began at the very instant when Jesus rose. Having been able to achieve the work of conservation, restoration and refurbishing of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulcher, with the help of our three communities, also has additional value: It is the sign of a significant growth of fraternal relations between us and between our communities, characterized by mutual trust and cooperation.”

Father Patton called it a “providential coincidence” that all three denominations will mark Easter this year on the same date.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus said, “This unity of purpose is a sign of hope for future generations,” and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian said that in the spirit of cooperation forged between the three major Churches during the repairs, he would like to see the Assyrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches be permitted to celebrate their Divine Liturgy at Jesus’ tomb.

“We must pray earnestly to Jesus Christ to give us the wisdom to be able to absorb literally between ourselves his greatest commandment of love,” Patriarch Manougian said. “We have no difference in regard to this commandment and, unless we accept his commandment and express it in our lives and deeds, how can we consider ourselves Jesus’ disciples?”

 

Improved Relations

In an interview with the Register, Franciscan Father David Grenier, the secretary at the Custody of the Holy Land, emphasized that this was not the first time the three Churches have cooperated in order to repair a church structure.

“We cannot forget that the dome that was damaged by earthquake was restored,” Father Grenier said of the Holy Sepulcher’s dome, which was restored between 1994 and 1997.

Father Grenier said relations between the Churches have been improving since Blessed Pope Paul VI visited the Orthodox patriarchs of Jerusalem and Constantinople in 1964 and 1967. His 1964 meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras resulted in the removal of the excommunications that resulted from the Great Schism that split the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) Churches in 1054.

“From then on, Father Grenier said, both Catholic and Orthodox Churches and Protestant churches have been in dialogue. All believe in the words, ‘May all be one, so that the world will believe he sent me.’”

The fact that the global church has drawn closer “has affected relationships here in the Holy Land,” Father Grenier said. “It has changed a lot of the mentality” of division.

The Franciscan priest acknowledged that “some disagreements” occur between the clergy that share the Holy Sepulcher and Nativity churches, but that all try to abide by the 18th-century “Status Quo” decree, still in place, imposed by the Ottoman Turks in order to protect the rights of Holy Land Christian, Muslim and Jewish institutions. 

The status quo also applies to the various Christian denominations.

“If you consider that each community has its own people living in the churches, that we are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, these disagreements are really a very small part of everyday life,” Father Grenier said. “Ordinarily, we speak and collaborate. In the past, that wasn’t always the case, but now we are seeing more collaboration.”

Father Grenier said a commission for the status quo meets every month for normal, everyday matters, but when there are big projects, the heads of the Churches have additional meetings.

He added that the status quo “allows us to be in the same place and to celebrate, each one of us, the ceremonies fundamental to our faith.”

 

Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.