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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre:A Work in Progress



The Status Quo (capitalized) has referred to the customary set of arrangements regulating possession, usage, and liturgy at the holy places. It allows rivals to live and worship alongside each other in a confined space. Without it there would be a free-for-all. Because the major communities realize this, they insist on its strict observance, though it includes many inconvenient provisions. The Status Quo is a seamless web: if you pick and choose, it will fall apart. Change is not completely ruled out, however, provided the parties can amicably agree.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre:


By Raymond Cohen

Chaim Weizmann Professor of International Relations,

Hebrew University, Jerusalem and Corcoran Visiting Professor, Boston College.

He is author of Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

May 2009


When the nun Egeria came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early fifth century, she found the communities worshipping together harmoniously at Easter in the Anastasis, the Church of the Resurrection. Though the bishop always spoke Greek, his words were translated into Aramaic and Latin, “that all may understand what is being explained.”

Out of communion for centuries, six ancient churches are represented today at the Holy Sepulchre by communities of monks. The three major communities administering the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics—represented by the Franciscan Order—and Armenian Orthodox have their own chapels and share common areas, which include the stone of unction, the edicule containing Christ’s tomb, and surrounding paving. Two minor communities, the Coptic Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox, have rights of usage, but no say in the running of the church. The tiny Ethiopian Orthodox community, living on the roof, has no rights in the Anastasis.

Over the centuries, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, known in Jerusalem as Latins and Greeks, drifted apart for cultural and political, as much as theological reasons. Rivalry for control of the Holy Sepulchre reflected the wider conflict between the parent churches. After the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, a Latin bishop was appointed to the vacant Jerusalem patriarchate, traditionally occupied by an Orthodox prelate. The consecration of a new Holy Sepulchre in 1149 marked the high point of Latin primacy. When Saladin retook Jerusalem in 1187, he restored the patriarchal throne to the Orthodox.

During the Ottoman period (1516-1917), Greeks and Latins contested control of the edifice. They fought on three fronts: in the church with stones and staves; through the local Moslem religious courts with ancient deeds, sometimes forged; and in the corridors of power in Istanbul, where bribes and diplomatic pressure were used to obtain imperial firmans bestowing rights of possession and usage.

A surprise attack launched on Palm Sunday, 1757, brought the Greeks control of plum sites in the church. After a fire in 1808, they received imperial permission to carry out repairs and consolidated their position. A new neo-Byzantine edicule set the seal on their victory. The Armenians, like the Greeks’ millet or recognized religious minority, made gains as well. With their patrons, France and Spain at war, the Franciscans were left weakened and vulnerable.

By the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline. Napoleon III of France pressed the sultan to restore the pre-1757 status quo, appealing to a 1740 treaty. Nicholas I of Russia threatened to invade Turkey if this happened. To defuse the crisis, the sultan issued an 1853 firman, which declared that “The actual status quo will be maintained and the Jerusalem shrines, whether owned in common or exclusively by the Greek, Latin, and Armenian communities, will all remain forever in their present state.”

This decree was like the standstill provisions of a ceasefire imposed by the UN. Bitterly resented by Catholics, it locked Orthodox primacy in place. In 1878, the Treaty of Berlin incorporated the status quo into international law.

Since then, the Status Quo (capitalized) has referred to the customary set of arrangements regulating possession, usage, and liturgy at the holy places. It allows rivals to live and worship alongside each other in a confined space. Without it there would be a free-for-all. Because the major communities realize this, they insist on its strict observance, though it includes many inconvenient provisions. The Status Quo is a seamless web: if you pick and choose, it will fall apart. Change is not completely ruled out, however, provided the parties can amicably agree.

In some respects, the Status Quo functions like a railway timetable, specifying for every day of the ecclesiastical year the time and place of services and processions conducted by the communities in public areas of the church. It also acts as a sort of property register, detailing possession of every stone and nail. Not a carpet can be laid, a candle lit, or a step swept unless it is the custom.

There is not, and never has been, a single, agreed version, so the term The Status Quo, implying the existence of a single, definitive code, is misleading. Rather, it consists of several overlapping bodies of traditional practice. Each community has its own private compilation. Discrepancies between these versions are notoriously hard to reconcile. For instance, in the present dispute between Greeks and Armenians over the choreography of the Easter Saturday Holy Fire ceremony, the parties refute each other by referring back to contradictory practices existing at different points in time.

Historically, disputes were settled by the Moslem religious courts. This was no longer possible after the 1853 firman, which froze a contested state of affairs. Henceforth, disputes were handled administratively by the governor, who investigated the facts and made a determination as to customary practice. This prohibition on adjudication by the local courts was formalized by Britain in a 1924 order-in-council. When an administrative ruling was issued, it was accompanied by the disclaimer that it was “without prejudice to existing rights and claims,” allowing the losing community to save face by continuing to maintain its formal claim. In practice, though, an administrative ruling was as binding as any legal judgment.

The system worked smoothly during the Ottoman period because Turkish governors possessed a definitive record of past practice. Subsequent sovereigns did not. When British officials took over Jerusalem in 1917, they found that the governors’ records had disappeared. Consequently, during the Mandate they could not always authoritatively determine customary rights.

As a substitute for the missing archive, the Mandate authorities commissioned a young official, L.G.A. Cust, to draw up a memorandum describing the Status Quo. Cust did his best, but his superior, H.G. Luke, thought that many details were so debatable that he attached to The Status Quo In The Holy Places (1929) the proviso, “The accounts of practice given in this Print are not to be taken as necessarily having official authority.”

Under the Israeli dispensation, the system of administrative judgment has been discontinued, mostly leaving it up to the communities to sort things out for themselves. The authorities prefer to mediate, suggesting, not imposing solutions. This markedly differs from the Jordanian period when the governor acted as arbiter in the Arab tradition.

The Status Quo system was an improvement on previous practice when the Turks arbitrarily transferred rights from one community to another. A grave drawback was that it contained no satisfactory provision for carrying out major repairs. The problem lay with Turkish property law, which held that payment for repair of a structure indicated possession and that the owner of the covering of a building owned the building. Thus, as much as one community wanted to pay for a certain repair as an assertion of ownership, the other two communities were eager to block it.

In July 1927, a major earthquake struck Jerusalem. The Holy Sepulchre, in poor condition after centuries of neglect, was badly damaged, though this was not discovered until 1933 by the British architect William Harvey, who immediately warned of the danger of imminent collapse and the need for emergency scaffolding.

For the next twenty years, a series of convulsions—Arab revolt, world war, and the 1948 Arab-Israel conflict—postponed sustained treatment of the issue. Finally, in 1954, architects for the three major communities drew up a joint report acknowledging the precarious condition of the Holy Sepulchre and outlining a solution.

Even so, it was to take until 1961 before the project got underway. Mistrust naturally did not disappear overnight. Psychological barriers had to come down and the communities reach consensus on big issues of principle. According to a key 1958 agreement, the project was to rest on the territorial status quo, implying the preservation of alterations in the layout of the church made to Greek advantage in 1809-10. (These included the walling-off of the crossing and the partition of the deambulatory in the rotunda.)

Between 1961 and 1980, the edifice was rehabilitated from top to bottom. This immense task required repairing foundations and cisterns; restoring internal and external walls, replacing thousands of stones, removing old mortar and injecting new; reconstructing columns, carving new capitals and bands where needed; rebuilding vaults and domes in the rotunda, north and south transepts, crossing, and Greek choir; strengthening the entire structure with an interlocking system of reinforced concrete beams and pillars hidden under walls, terraces, and floors.

By the time the rotunda dome was finished in December 1980, the monument was in better shape than it had been for 500 years: many beautiful features had been recovered and ugly scaffolding dismantled. The Anastasis would be able to withstand any conceivable future earthquake.

The most difficult challenge facing the communities throughout was not the technical work of reconstruction, however arduous and complex, but the political task of negotiating scores of agreements, definitively settling possessory rights in the entire basilica.

A set of propitious circumstances facilitated this achievement:

Following completion of the rotunda dome in 1980, the project ground to a halt. Patriarch Benediktos, the motor of the entire venture, died. At the same time, the common technical bureau ceased to operate. For years, community representatives debated inconclusively the politically sensitive issue of the decoration of the dome.

In the end, an inoffensive compromise design was agreed upon by church leaders and inaugurated in January 1997, enabling the scaffolding disfiguring the rotunda to come down. However, the restoration was unfinished: The edicule was left untouched, visibly disintegrating and only held together by steel bands; paving throughout the church was cracked and shabby; the electrical and sewage systems badly needed renovation, as did the malodorous public latrines.

In late 2007, agreement was reached on a plan for new latrines, partly thanks to markedly improved relations between Latins and Greeks. But this accord has not yet been implemented because of a disagreement between the major communities and the Copts over renovation of the sewage line, which runs under the Coptic patriarchate, and because of tense relations between Greeks and Armenians over rights inside the tomb. Twice in 2008 monks clashed over the presence of a Greek sacristan during Armenian pontifical processions. Precedence at the Holy Fire ceremony continues to be bitterly contested.

These are ancient disputes and in time tensions will doubtless abate, as they have in the past. Repair of the latrines would help to build confidence. Meanwhile, completion of the restoration of Christianity’s holiest place awaits better days.