April 20, 2011

One Door and No Fire Exit at Holy Sepulchre Church

Matti Friedman
April 20, 2011
Associated Press

Thousands of Christian believers will fill the medieval chambers of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Saturday for a ritual known as the Holy Fire, packed shoulder to shoulder and holding burning candles as pilgrims have done for centuries. And, as in centuries past, the church will still have only one door and no fire exit.

The saga of the emergency exit at the storied church has pitted common sense against religious politics and tradition at one of Christianity's most sacred sites. The winner was never in doubt. Despite dire warnings from Israeli officials, safety concerns have been outweighed by a reluctance to upset a brittle balance of power among the six Christian sects in the Sepulcher. A fire exit still does not exist.

"Everyone understands that there is logic in it," said Theofilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. "But there is logic in the desire that no unnecessary changes be made. It is volatile."

On the day before Easter, as many as 10,000 worshippers crowd the church in the walled Old City for the Holy Fire, one of the Holy Land's most beautiful customs. Many thousands more fill the alleyways and courtyards outside.

Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergymen enter the Edicule, the small structure marking the site of Jesus' tomb, holding candles that are then lit, according to tradition, by a divine flame. They pass the fire out to the crush of believers, who transfer it from candle to candle, filling the dark building with light.

The Holy Sepulcher, revered by believers as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, is less a single coherent church than a conglomeration of ancient rooms and chapels renovated, destroyed and rebuilt over the years. The first church was built on the site in the 4th century A.D.

There is only one way out: the front door, which leads to a small stone courtyard. This courtyard is unreachable by ambulances.

Israeli officials have been concerned since the late 1990s that a fire or stampede at the church, especially during the Holy Fire ceremony, will end in disaster.

During the Holy Fire ceremony in 1834, the crowd in the church panicked and several hundred people were crushed or suffocated to death.

Robert Curzon, an English traveler who was there and barely survived, recounted in an 1849 book that frightened Turkish troops would not let anyone out.

"Everyone struggled to defend himself or to get away," he wrote, "and in the melee all who fell were immediately trampled to death by the rest."

Curzon fought his way through the crowd to the smooth stone where Jesus' body is believed to have been laid out: "The dead were lying in heaps, even upon the stone of unction, and I saw full 400 unhappy people, dead and living, heaped promiscuously one upon another, in some places above five feet high."

Little of significance has changed in the church's architecture since then. Though the sects at the Sepulcher acknowledge the necessity of an emergency exit, Israeli efforts have come up against the intricacies of the Status Quo, a 155-year-old agreement that governs relations between the groups that control the church.

Tweet Be the first to Tweet this!Yahoo! Buzz ShareThis Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian clergy govern the Sepulcher building, with lesser rights accorded to Ethiopians, Copts and Assyrians. The sects are typically backed by at least one foreign government. Every inch of the building and its immediate environs belongs to one of the sects, each of which meticulously guards its territory.

Disputes have occasionally erupted into fistfights between clergymen. Greeks and Armenians, for example, have clashed over the way certain ceremonies and processions are conducted, and the Copts have a long-running feud with the Ethiopians over possession of a rooftop monastery.

Cesare Marjieh, the Israeli Interior Ministry liaison with the Christian churches, said his power to press for a new exit is limited.

"I don't like to push. I try to mediate -- that's our policy," he said.

Father Athanasius, a Texas native and Catholic monk of the Franciscan order who sits on an inter-church committee at the Holy Sepulcher, described the Status Quo as an "ecosystem" that had to be treated with caution.

"The question is, how is this going to change the dynamic inside the church?" he asked.

The most likely location for an exit would require the agreement of the Greek Orthodox, Copts and Ethiopians. But wherever a new exit is located, one of the churches would have to cede part of the sacred space under its control. "I don't know where they're going to do it," said Father Samuel Aghoyan, the senior Armenian priest at the church.

Adding a layer of political complexity, some of the space directly outside other potential exit points in the church walls is controlled by an Islamic religious body known as the Waqf, which does not recognize Israel's control in Jerusalem and is therefore unlikely to cooperate.

An attempt to force construction unilaterally, even on safety grounds, would almost certainly meet with an international outcry because Israel's sovereignty in the holy city is a matter of dispute.

The plan has also faced technical challenges because the church is hemmed in on most sides by other buildings. Building an exit will involve breaking walls, constructing staircases and cutting through neighboring structures, at a building where far more minute alterations have been controversial.

A ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century, for example, has remained there ever since because of a disagreement over who has the authority to take it down.

Theofilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, termed the situation in the church "delicate and complex" and warned that risking the equilibrium at the Holy Sepulcher could be done only with the utmost care. "It's like a ruined house," he said. "Don't take out a stone, because it might fall down."