Orthodox clergy clash at birthplace of Jesus

Battling clergymen besmirched one of the holiest spots in the world on December 28. Dozens of monks clashed within the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - where tradition holds is the place where Jesus was born. Monks were cleaning up in advance of the Orthodox Christian observance of the birth of Christ to be held in early January. A fight broke out between Orthodox monks who assailed each other with brooms until local police intervened in the affray. Palestinian security forces broke up the melee, and now serious injuries are reported.

The Church of the Nativity is shared by three branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox. The fracas emerged as Armenian and Greek clerics assaulted each other as both sides accusing the other of encroachment on respective turf. A status quo reigns over the relations between the religious authorities represented at the church. According to ancient accepted practice, to repair or clean a part of the structure is to own it. This means that should representatives of one church clean a part of the sanctuary claimed by another church, one could gain at the expense of the other. Similar fights and scuffling have occurred in the past, usually between the Orthodox.

Tensions between rival clergy at the Church of the Nativity have been a fact of life for centuries and have often been caught up in international politics. More than one hundred years ago, tensions at the church grew to the extent that Russian Czar Nicholas I deployed troops along the Danube to threaten a Turkish sultan who had been favoring the Catholics over the Orthodox. The physical integrity of the building itself is threatened. Built 1,500 years ago, parts of the church have fallen into disrepair. The roof has needed repair for decades. Leaking rainwater has ruined priceless artwork inside, and renovation has been delayed for years by disagreements over who would pay for restoration. However, the Palestinian Authority has brokered an agreement to move ahead with replacing the roof, and officials hope work will begin in 2012.

Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.


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