At Christianity’s Holiest Site, Rival Monks Struggle to Turn Other Cheek

JERUSALEM — As Orthodox Christians descended on Jerusalem this Easter week to visit the holiest site in their religion, a more earthly concern hovered over the holiday: Would rival monks keep the peace this year or again engage in clashes?

In a centuries-long conflict, Egyptian Coptic monks and Ethiopian Orthodox monks have competed for the control of a small monastery located on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built at the site where Christians believe Christ was crucified, entombed and resurrected.

Despite the monastery’s sacred location, it has become a site of petty quarrels that occur on a near-annual basis, and sometimes even boil over into violence

“When I first arrived in Jerusalem I was shocked,” said Markos Alorshalemy, an Egyptian monk. “I was expecting to see a holy land, where everyone is living in peace and light. But instead, I found a place where everyone is constantly fighting, even inside the holiest church.”

On the eve of Palm Sunday in 1757, Greek Orthodox adherents attacked Franciscan Catholics inside the church “with clubs, maces, hooks, poniards and swords,” the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, citing a contemporary account, wrote in his book, “Jerusalem: The Biography.”

As recently as 2008, a violent brawl broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clergy over the route of a procession, leading to arrests.

Last year, at least, the hostilities were mostly limited to nocturnal graffiti.

The street scene just outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Ethiopian monks praying in a chapel inside Deir al-Sultan Monastery.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

On the eve of Palm Sunday in 2022, late at night as his rivals slept, an Egyptian Coptic monk surreptitiously painted a large Egyptian flag at the door to a courtyard he believed was being illegally occupied by Ethiopian monks.

“We called the police once, twice, three times, but they did nothing,” the Egyptian monk, Theophilus Alorshalemy, said in an interview, explaining his act of protest. “So we decided to deal with them ourselves.”

The Old City of Jerusalem, sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, was occupied by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and later annexed, a move not recognized by much of the world. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just the latest battle over ownership and land in a city that has been invaded and captured scores of times in its history.

Rival sects of Christians have been jostling for control of their faith’s holy sites in Jerusalem for nearly two millenniums, and the sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulcher is at the heart of these contests.

Just this week, Orthodox Christians have reacted angrily to police restrictions on the number of worshipers who can attend the boisterous “Holy Fire” service in the cramped church on Saturday. Orthodox Christian leaders said it was a restriction on worship; the police said it was to prevent a stampede.

Six Christian denominations try to share control over the church, which is really a tangled knot of several chapels, monasteries and shrines, a complex and sometimes chaotic arrangement that has contributed to the occasional bloodshed.

Many of the major points of contention at the holy site were resolved by a 19th-century Ottoman-era decree, known as the Status Quo, which is still in place today and requires that no change be made at the Holy Sepulcher, no matter how minute, without consensus.

The tiny rooms where the Ethiopian monks and nuns live at Deir al-Sultan Monastery.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Gebre Slassie, an Ethiopian monk who lives in Deir al-Sultan Monastery, at the green door that separates the quarters of the rival monks.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

But the conflict between the Ethiopians and Egyptians about the small monastery on top of the church remains active and heated — and can be set off by something as small as the placement of a chair.

In 2002, several monks were hospitalized in a fistfight that followed an Egyptian monk moving his chair to the shade of a nearby tree, according to news reports at the time. In 2018, tensions rose again over the renovation of a ceiling, leading the police to arrest an Egyptian monk.

The contested monastery is in one of the least heralded parts of the complex, reached via a slippery, gloomy stairway. At the top of the stairs stands a small church where Ethiopians worship daily. Next door is a small courtyard whose walls are lined with wooden green doors, behind which about 20 Ethiopian monks and nuns live in several tiny rooms.

When the Ethiopian monks woke up last Easter season to find an Egyptian flag painted across the courtyard door, they were miffed but not surprised.

The day before, they had erected a tent bearing a large Ethiopian flag in the middle of the contested courtyard — as they have on every Easter for the past few years — to accommodate Ethiopian pilgrims.

The Egyptians, provoked by what they considered a political statement, called the police to take down the tent, but to no avail. Fed up, Father Theophilus and his fellow monks decided to return the provocation.

Father Theophilus Alorshalemy, an Egyptian Coptic monk, restoring damaged centuries-old paintings.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a tangled knot of several chapels, monasteries and shrines.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Only after the graffiti incident did the Israeli police intervene, and by the next morning, both flags were gone.

The origins of this conflict are hard to trace, and the legitimacy of the rival claims is hard to assess. Both sides are convinced the monastery is theirs.

“They occupied our monastery, and we came to take it back,” said Gabra Yihun, an Ethiopian monk who has lived in Jerusalem for 33 years.

Father Markos, the Egyptian monk, countered: “We don’t really want them to leave — we just want them to admit that this monastery is ours.”

The contested area is known as Deir al-Sultan, or Monastery of the Sultan, which first appears in the historical record in the 7th century, without any mention to whom the site belonged, said Stéphane Ancel, a French historian who documents the history of the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem.

“As historians, we couldn’t find documents proving either community’s opinion,” Mr. Ancel said.

Once large and prosperous, the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem began to dwindle by the latter half of the 17th century, as disease and poverty led them to lose most of their properties and privileges in the holy land, according to Mr. Ancel.

Ethiopian immigrants, who live in Tel Aviv, lighting candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Father Theophilus inside the Saint Helena cistern, within the church complex.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

The few remaining Ethiopian monks took shelter on the property of the Egyptian Coptic Church. The Egyptians hosted them in small chambers on the terrace of Deir al-Sultan, and the Ethiopians have been there ever since.

Initially, the two communities got along, but once the Egyptians realized that the Ethiopians were no longer temporary guests, tensions slowly began to rise between the two communities, and began flaring regularly around the 19th century, Mr. Ancel said.

After a violent clash in 1893, when the Ethiopians claimed the Egyptians locked them inside the monastery, the Ottoman authorities, in a rare compromise, gave the Ethiopians a second entrance to the monastery: the same green door Father Theophilus painted last Easter.

After the Ottomans, it was the turn of the British and then the Israeli authorities — as well as the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments — to try to mediate, but all efforts fell short.

On Easter in 1970, the Ethiopians took advantage of a brief Egyptian absence and changed the monastery’s locks. When the Egyptians found out, they rushed back, but Israeli security forces blocked their entry, said Father Markos.

The Egyptians immediately filed a lawsuit with Israel’s Supreme Court, which in 1971 ruled in favor of the Egyptians based on documents said to prove the church’s ownership of the monastery. Although the keys have since been returned to the Egyptians, the court’s ruling has never been fully implemented and the Ethiopians remain in place.

Israel Border Police at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Six Christian denominations try to share control over the churchCredit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Tourists near the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity’s holiest site.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

For the most part, when all is calm, the neighbors barely interact beyond occasional nods and greetings.

“At the end of the day, we are Fathers in Christ,” Father Theophilus said.

On a recent afternoon, Father Theophilus walked through the green door into Deir al-Sultan and exchanged a polite nod with an older Ethiopian monk worshiping in a corner.

For a moment, it was easy to forget they were rivals.

But then Father Theophilus glanced at an old engraving on the wall inside the chapel, where the Ethiopian monks celebrate daily Mass.

He couldn’t resist pointing out its Egyptian roots.

“This is traditional Coptic style, you see?”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.

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