The Church of the Resurrection, part 9

The fetters of the status quo account for the state of dirt and dilapidation which is characteristic of many parts of the building. (Archer Cust, The Status Quo in the Holy places, 1925)

When the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917, the Turkish governor fled – taking with him over 400 years of documents concerning the Status Quo of Christian holy sites. He also took the Greek patriarch, Damianos.

Damianos did not care for the British, and he absolutely insisted that the Status Quo be maintained. At every turn, efforts to repair the damage from the 1927 earthquake and the cumulative effects of centuries of patching were blocked. Over the next twenty years, Damianos and his successor Timotheos resisted any efforts to care for the Church of the Resurrection on the grounds that they would grant privileges to the Latins.

The problem lay in Ottoman law, which unlike British common law, did not allow for the possession of a religious site. The site was instead subject to waqf, a kind of endowment that provided for the use of a site by a religious group but specifically prohibits ownership. In a complicated, and not completely understood, arrangement, many of the Christian holy sites throughout Israel had been placed under a kind of waqf law, which was what necessitated the Status Quo and all the firmans on who could do what and when.

The British had difficulty interpreting the waqf, partially because all of the official Ottoman documents were missing and partially because they simply did not understand Ottoman law. On top of these issues, both the French and the Vatican took issue with the British control of the Holy Land, since Great Britain was a Protestant nation. Distrust and bureaucratic stalling delayed any attempt to repair the Church. The difficult task of governing the troubled region actually contributed to their surrender of their League of Nations mandate in 1948.

While confusion reigned, architects and clerics bickered, and the British were paralyzed. With their mandate expiring, the rule of the city and all of its holy sites passed to King Abdullah bin al-Hussein of Jordan.

Abdullah had been an ally of the British during World War I and had been appointed the Emir of Transjordan under the British Mandate. An educated and world-wise moderate, Abdullah attempted to control the excesses of all of his constituent groups, including the Christians.

His father Hussein had been the Sharif of Mecca and briefly declared himself the king after rebelling against the Ottomans in 1916. The Saudis put this to an end in 1924, and Hussein was forced to leave the Saudi kingdom. He joined his son Abdullah in Transjordan, and he was buried in Jerusalem.

Abdullah saw himself as the Sharif of Jerusalem, just as his father had been the guardian of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. So, when the Mandate ended in 1948, Abdullah wished to protect the city from extremists. He ordered troops into the city, and they fought both the Jews and the Arab extremists who were led by Mufti Mohammad Amin al-Husayni.

If the Mufti was allowed to establish a Muslim Palestinian state, the region would descend in to chaos. Equally, Abdullah did not want such a volatile group under control of what was going to emerge as the Jewish state of Israel. Originally, he had hoped to be able to create an autonomous Jewish canton within his kingdom, but the Jews refused to accept anything short of full independence.

Abdullah walked a delicate balance, fighting the Israelis and absorbing the Palestinians into his kingdom. In the end, Abdullah wound up with possession of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. This possession included the administration of the decaying Church of the Resurrection.

One of Abdullah’s most significant contributions to the protection of the Church came in 1949. During the evening of November 23, a fire broke out in Anastastis rotunda. Thanks to the concrete coverings put in place during an earlier attempt at restoration, the fire was restricted to the dome itself and did not spread to the rest of the Church.

The day after the fire started, Abdullah was on site. He called a meeting of the leaders of all the communities. It was the first time that a sovereign had invited the leaders of the faith communities to actually meet and discuss the care of the Church of the Resurrection. Although the meeting accomplished nothing and the communities continued to bicker, at least they were bickering across a table.

(It is mind-boggling that no one thought of this until 1949! As amazing as it sounds, when William Harvey was surveying the building in the 1930’s, the other communities never thought of having their experts meet with him. They sent his reports all over the world without considering that a face-to-face meeting might lead to a quick resolution.)

Sadly, Abdullah was shot dead by a Palestinian extremist in 1951 while attending afternoon prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. His son Talal served as king for a year, but he was forced to abdicate and Talal’s son Hussein became king. Hussein would rule Jordan for the next forty-seven years and make it one of the most stable and moderate states in the Middle East.

With Hussein on the Jordanian throne, the Church of the Resurrection was still decaying. What was needed was a moderate Orthodox patriarch who would work with his Arab king, the European-dominated Franciscans and the other Eastern communities in the Church. Timotheos died in 1955, and the patriarchal throne remained vacant for two years.

Ultimately, the moderate Vasileos Papadopoulos was affirmed as Patriarch Benedict I, and he immediately set to work finding a compromise that would be amenable to all parties. For nearly thirty years (1961-1980), Benedict took the lead in massive restorations of the Church.

Benedict had served as what might be considered the Chief Financial Officer of the patriarchate. He had important financial connections to the national government of Greece, who had been on the side of the victors in both world wars and with the demise of the Ottomans, was now more prosperous than any time in its history. He won a narrow election against Demianos’ nephew and was the first patriarch not from the island of Samos in over a century. Clearly, things were going to be different under his rule.

Living in the shadow of the 1956 Suez War, which had heightened opposition to European involvement in the region (which included the Israeli state), Benedict met with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and both encouraged the other Orthodox communities to find common ground and unity with each other and the Roman Catholics.

The Greek government began budgeting to match the contributions of the Greek Church. The Jordanians likewise got behind the project, which they saw as the continuation of the work of King Abdullah but also as a way to block Soviet power (the geopolitics of the Church are always confusing).

Benedict fought through obstacle after obstacle for nearly a decade. In the wake of their enormous losses in the second World War, the Latins were willing to guarantee the status quo. All the major parties signed an agreement for the work in 1958, over thirty years after the earthquake.

Eventually, a Dominican friar named Charles Coüasnon was chosen to lead a restoration team that included representatives of all the faith communities. Work finally got underway in 1959 although it did not begin in earnest until the 1960’s.

The continued work required a strong hand. Benedict was constantly seeking out funding for the work and resolving conflicts. His contribution was so significant that when he died in 1980, the parties immediately fell to squabbling again and it took another seventeen years before they could agree how to remove the scaffolding around the Anastasis rotunda.

It is hard to believe that a project that was begun when my father was still in elementary school (in 1959, he was 7) was still lingering when I traveled to Israel as a college student (in 1997, when I was 20). But that is the story of the Church of the Resurrection almost since it passed into the hands of the Crusaders in 1099.

There is so much more that could be written about the Church. I haven’t even touched on so much of significance, but after three weeks of posts exclusively on this topic, let’s put it aside for a while.

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