Just days before the start of millennium celebrations, Christian leaders in Jerusalem have not yet found a solution to an acute security problem for visiting pilgrims at one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem.

According to the Israeli government, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—which marks the place where Christ is said to have been buried and risen from the dead—is a fire trap, where hundreds could die in the event of a blaze.

The church has only one gate, used for both entrance and exit, making it a high risk for visitors should a fire break out.

No agreement has yet been reached to open a new emergency exit in time for next year when huge crowds are expected to flood the shrine to celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ.

The shrine has been ablaze more than once. In 1808, a fire swept through the Holy Sepulcher, collapsing the dome of the church and also damaging the tomb of Christ itself.

And in 1834 more than three hundred people reportedly died when panic spread through the crowd attending the mass lighting of candles during the Easter Holy Fire Ceremony of the Greek Orthodox community. Many perished from suffocation and others were trampled to death as people rushed to the only door, which had been closed to prevent the crowds outside from entering the already packed area.

There are many who fear this could happen again next year during the same ceremony.

One of them is Uri Mor, director of the department for Christian communities, in the Israeli Ministry for Religious Affairs

"It's very dangerous," he told Ecumenical News International (ENI). "It goes without saying. I am saying it publicly and writing another report every month about it. It's obvious if you put 20,000 people or 70,000 people with candles or burning torches in one place which only has one exit, it's a catastrophe."

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Roman Catholic priest and an expert on Christian holy sites, also told ENI there was a real danger of another fire.

"I think there is a real need for a second door because you have very crowded, very dangerous ceremonies such as the Orthodox Holy Fire, where the church is absolutely packed and people are waving flaming candles," he said.

"And if something should happen there, not everybody can get out the same entrance, the single entrance we have at the moment."

But an Israeli ministerial committee has decided it will not act unilaterally to open another exit fearing this would provoke protests from the six Christian traditions—Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, and Ethiopians—which share the use of the church.

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None of these groups is thought willing to sacrifice a part of the area they control to make way for a new exit.

Each of these groups, according to Murphy-O'Connor, carefully guards its rights to different sections of the church.

"The church groups would, I am sure, all agree in principle, that there should be a door," he said. "But the choice is who is going to lose some property."

The whole affair is now also threatening to become a political issue because of the fact that the shrine is located in eastern Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war. The international community regards as illegal Israel's subsequent annexing of this part of the city.

Wadie Abu Nassar, a spokesman for the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, said church leaders were united in rejecting Israel's attempt to mediate in the dispute.

"The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the eastern part of Jerusalem," he told ENI. "The churches do not recognize Israeli sovereignty there."

He added that giving Israel a role in the dispute might set a "precedent for government intervention in the internal affairs of the church."

But Murphy-O'Connor said there were precedents for such actions in the interests of public safety.

One example occurred during the time of the British Mandate rule. In 1947, the British unilaterally put in a metal framework to prevent the structure above the tomb of Christ from collapsing.

But for the moment at least, the Israeli government is not willing to interfere while it is still embroiled in another dispute over holy sites, following its decision to allow a mosque to be built in Nazareth next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the traditional site where the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

Approval for the mosque caused an uproar among church groups. But Uri Mor insists that the church leaders should not use the issue of the mosque in Nazareth to ignore the need to improve security at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

"The churches know that we are approaching the year 2000 when millions of pilgrims will come, so they will have to decide before the arriving of the millennium," he said.

Related Elsewhere

See our earlier story on the subject, "Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning." (June 14, 1999)

In "Where Have They Laid My Lord? | A pilgrim's tale of two tombs," (CT, Mar. 3, 1997) Wendy Murray Zoba discusses the differences between the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb.

See more about the Holy Sepulcher at the official Franciscan site (the Franciscans are the caretakers of the church; see their statement about the emergency exit here).

There are many more sites discussing the Holy Sepulcher. Here is a page of links.

Christian History, a Christianity Today sister publication, discussed Jesus' burial in its "Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" issue.