Armenian News Network / Groong


Armenian News Network / Groong
September 15, 2008

By Arthur Hagopian


Inside The Holy Sepulchre

For decades, the triumphant triumvirate of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches, have stood firm guard over the panoply of Christian sacred places in the Holy Land, protecting, refurbishing and maintaining them. Often at enormous cost, the burden shared equally by all.

It has been a practical and productive arrangement that has seen, among others, the roof of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christendom's holiest structures, restored to a brilliant display of inspiring color, after lingering as a painful eyesore buttressed by rickety scaffolding that soared upwards in an ungainly tangle of tubing.

The three guardians co-operate under the aegis of a special Status Quo committee that oversees all preservation efforts and attempts to smooth out any differences of opinion that may arise. And there have been more than one. But although harmony has not always been a prevalent feature of their deliberations, the custodians are united in their aims.

The committee derives its authority from a historic pledge made by the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Majid, whose 1852 "firman" (declaration) officially established the principle of "Status Quo" (i.e., existing "as is" condition) in the Holy Places.

"The edict defines, regulates and maintains, without change, the proprietary rights in the Holy Places granted exclusively to the three major Christian rites - Greek, Armenian and Latin Catholic - thus making the Armenian Church equal in stature to the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches despite its relatively small size," according to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

However, on more than one occasion, the disagreements, particularly between the two Orthodox churches, have festered for too long, with restoration work unduly protracted.

It took a lifetime for the Status Quo committee to ink an agreement for renovation work at the Holy Sepulcher church, while for decades the roof of the Nativity church in Bethlehem, remained in a serious state of disrepair.

According to Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, director of Ecumenical and Foreign Relations at the Armenian Patriarchate, the delay was due to the "divergent positions among the three custodian churches."

With the Greeks insisting that they alone had the right to undertake the restoration, nothing could be accomplished, he noted.

But a solution to the impasse has now been found, he said, thanks to the Palestinian Authority to which the matter was referred and which has agreed to supervise the work that needs to be done.

Shirvanian revealed the three guardians have also achieved another milestone, with an agreement to finally revamp and restore the lavatories in the Holy Sepulcher church, at a cost of US$136,000.

"This issue had been a contentious one for decades until intensive negotiations yielded a breakthrough," he said. Although he did not spell it out, the unsavory smells and unhygienic conditions emanating from the dilapidated utility have always repelled visitors, tourists and pilgrims.

The restoration work is unending, and the demands on the resources of the churches, daunting.

"The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem needs the financial support of each Armenian community worldwide to preserve and maintain the priceless legacy of heritage and presence left by past generations of faithful pilgrims in the Holy Land," Shirvanian stresses.

"Time, attention, prayers and donations are all essential to the success of Armenian Jerusalem," he adds.

The Armenian Patriarchate oversees sacred sites all over the Holy Land, but possesses only limited resources, human and material, to help carry out its mandate.

Because of this, its ability to protect its possessions becomes strained. Vandalism has become a particularly acute problem for the church.

This summer alone, vandals struck at two of the church's properties, one in Ramleh, an hour's distance from Jerusalem, and one at Baron Der, a 33-1/2 acre olive grove between the towns of Bethlehem-Beit Jala and Jerusalem.

In Ramleh, the criminals took advantage of the temporarily uninhabited St George's Armenian monastery to ransack the interior as well as to destroy doors and windows.

(Shocked, the Armenian Patriarch, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, despite the ill health that has troubled him recently, traveled all the way to the site to inspect the damage.)

Shirvanian notes that the monastery "dates back to the 1600's and its ancient history is linked to Armenian pilgrims, who, before the invention of modern transportation, regularly disembarked from boats in the nearby port of Jaffa on their way to Jerusalem. After resting at St. Nicholas Armenian Monastery in Jaffa, overlooking the harbor of Tel Aviv, they would proceed to Ramleh and St George's Monastery. After another rest period, they would resume their journey to Jerusalem."

Barely a month after the Ramleh attack, a "fire of suspicious origin" broke out at Baron Der, damaging up to 20 trees.

Despite all the turmoil and travails, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem continues to live up to its legacy, its standing and authority as the second most important Armenian spiritual center (after Etchmiadzin, in the Motherland), permanently inscribed on the throne of St James now occupied by an incumbent whose unbridled enthusiasm, devotion and determination, open-mindedness and pragmatic approach, have evoked widespread appreciation and support.

Arthur Hagopian is a Jerusalem Armenian and has worked at the
Patriarchate as Press Officer and personal secretary for His Beatitude
Patriarch Manoogian. He has worked for major news organizations like
Reuters and AP, and holds a MA in educational administration,
authoring, web development.
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