A Modus Vivendi at a Holy Site

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

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Roman Catholic clergy in a procession around the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

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Jerusalem—Up a narrow stairway in the dimly lit, vaulted Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christian pilgrims are lined up to worship at the grand silver shrine built on the place where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified.

A bearded, black-robed Greek Orthodox monk is sweeping the orange marble floor in front of the shrine. Confirming that this area is under the care of the Greek Orthodox Church, he points a few feet away, past the shrine's edge, where the floor is laid in a different color marble. "The white floor there," he says, struggling with English, "is Roman Catholics."

The great church, built by the Romans in 335 and rebuilt in its present form by the Crusaders in 1149, is remarkable in many respects, not least for the way this intensely sacred space—the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem—is shared. Over the centuries, various Christian denominations staked a claim. Today, it is divvied up into territories and ritual duties by six resident Christian groups: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, (Egyptian) Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.

Their places are precisely delineated under rules that were set down in 1852 by Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Majid, who tired of sending his troops to break up sectarian fights over control and practices. "The sultan was sending troops in here all the time, so he finally said, 'You're going to do this and you're going to do that,' " explains Brother Gregory Giannoni, standing in front of the church's ground-floor Franciscan chapel.

At 12:55 p.m., he pulls a rope on the wall that rings a bell: time for incense. Soon a Greek Orthodox monk, then an Armenian Apostolic monk, then a Coptic Orthodox monk walk slowly past, swinging their incense lamps. "That's the pecking order," says Giannoni, a Chicago native, exchanging bows with the monks.

In some respects, the sultan's actions all but froze time. A ladder that had been standing on the ledge above the church's entrance doors in 1852 is still there; the ledge and doors were deemed "common" territory, and since altering the church's common territory requires the consent of all six sects, the ladder may still be there for Jesus's prophesied return.

Traditions. As part of the legacy of Jerusalem's own embattled past, the keys to the church are held by Muslims, as they have been since the year 638, when Caliph Omar, then the city's ruler, appointed the local Nusseibeh family as doorkeepers. Seated on a bench just inside the front door is the man who now has that job. Since his father died 25 years ago, Wajeeh Nusseibeh has been faithfully unlocking the church at 4 a.m. and locking it at 8 p.m.

There is one more historical twist: He doesn't actually have custody of the keys. That duty, or privilege, was granted in 1192 by the conqueror Saladin to the local Joudeh family. And since then, a Joudeh has been bringing a Nusseibeh the keys each morning and evening. "Our two families are friends," says Nusseibeh, though he adds that the Joudehs "are not allowed to touch the doors or locks."

Today, the authorities keeping order at the church are Jewish. "We are here because if there is a fight inside, it could turn into an international incident," an Israeli policeman explains to tourists in the courtyard at the edge of the walled Old City's Christian Quarter.

The last fight recorded at the church was in 2004, when the Franciscans reportedly left their chapel door open during a Greek Orthodox ceremony. That was considered to be an insult by the Orthodox monks and resulted in bloody noses. Two years earlier, Ethiopian monks took umbrage at a Coptic monk sitting on their roof, and scores of police were required to break up the resulting brawl. "The Copts are like the Pharaoh—merciless," says Ethiopian monk Tsion Beyn, recalling the battle. Nearby, a monk identifying himself as Coptic Brother Misael says, with a dismissive wave of the hand, "The Ethiopians are not part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher."

Despite the odd dust-up, what matters is that Abd al-Majid's sectarian peace endures in the church. Armenian Brother Armin Khachatrian, selling candles, oil, and crucifixes out of his sect's anteroom, says in fractured English, "Maybe there some troubles. But in our heart, everyone love[s] everyone. For me, God one."