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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jerusalem holy site chaotic

By Richard Halloran

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Greek Orthodox worshippers pass holy fire to fellow worshippers around what is considered by many Christians as the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The church now is shabby and dirty.

AP file photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks scuffle near the site traditionally thought to be the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

AP file photo

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The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, erected over what is believed to have been the site of the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus Christ, should be among the most revered places in Christianity.

Instead, it is shabby and dirty, lacks dignity and decorum, and herds visitors through its chapels like cattle. Visitors have seen fistfights among priests and unruly mobs have required the Israeli police to intervene.

In sum, the church should be called the Shame of Christianity.

In contrast to the turmoil surrounding the church are the calm in the nearby Western Wall, a holy site for Jews, and the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site for Muslims. In both, discreet signs or polite caretakers ask visitors to respect the religious rites and people praying there.

During a recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims were ushered by the hundreds into spaces that could comfortably hold tens. As they climbed stairs to a chapel commemorating the crucifixion, two rude priests or monks bellowed to the visitors to make way for an Armenian priest in ceremonial robes and swinging an incense burner.

"Get out of the way," shouted one monk in English, "or I will push you out of the way!"

He backed off when an American visitor warned: "You push me, I push back."

Another monk raised his fist to a different American visitor but thought the better of it when that young man, about 6-feet-3 and very athletic, told the monk to "calm down."

Still, the pilgrims were hemmed in, shoving and elbowing until the priest finished his chant. Then, slowly, some were allowed to escape while others stayed to pray. A Palestinian Christian chided the visitors: "You Americans are too nice. You have to learn to use your elbows and push your way ahead."

Episodes like this are not uncommon. An Internet site devoted to sacred destinations provided background on the church, saying: "Every day hundreds of pilgrims and clergy weave in and out of the church, creating an atmosphere of noise and confusion not alleviated by the sanctuary's dark and gloomy interior."

"Byzantine, medieval, Crusader and modern elements mix in an odd mish-mash of styles, and each governing Christian community has decorated its shrines in its own distinctive way," the article says. "In many ways, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not what one would imagine for the holiest site in all Christendom, and it can easily disappoint."

Built and rebuilt from the fourth century, the church is governed, chapel by chapel and altar by altar, by feuding Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic hierarchies, with Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox groups having lesser roles. Sighed a well-versed Roman Catholic priest: "They can never agree on anything."

In late 2008, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, fighting erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks at the church. Two monks from each side were detained by the police as dozens of worshippers traded kicks and punches.

"Dressed in the vestments of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations, rival monks threw punches and anything they could lay their hands on," the BBC reported. "Shocked pilgrims looked on as decorations and tapestries were toppled during Sunday's clash."

The Greeks blamed the Armenians for not recognizing their rights inside the site while the Armenians said the Greeks had violated one of their ceremonies.

In contrast, on the Sabbath at the Western Wall believed to be part of the Jewish temple built 2,500 years ago, Jewish men in black suits and hats and wrapped in white prayer shawls with blue stripes took no notice of non-Jewish visitors to the wide plaza so long as the visitors observed the rules no pictures, no writing, no smoking. Non-Jewish women were undisturbed in the women's section before the wall.

In the spacious courtyard of the Dome of the Rock, from which the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to Heaven, Muslim mothers played with their children while visitors strolled about. An American visitor asked a caretaker whether entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque was permitted. "No," said the caretaker, "and I am sorry from the bottom of my heart."

Richard Halloran, a former correspondent for The New York Times, is a freelance writer in Honolulu.