The Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem has angered the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches in the Holy Land by asserting sole control over the "locks and keys" to the Church of the Nativity, revered by many as marking the birthplace of Jesus.

"We claim we are the possessors of the keys, we are the guardians of the door [at the Church of the Nativity]," Archbishop Aristarchos, of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem told Ecumenical News International.

He acknowledged that the Greek Orthodox monks at the site had changed the locks and refused to share the keys, evoking the outrage of the Catholics and Armenians.

A set of rules known as the "Status Quo" set down by the Ottoman rulers of the Holy Land in 1852, who were Muslims, prescribes the spaces that Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Christians can use for worship in the Church of the Nativity.

The rules stipulate that Greek Orthodox monks are responsible for opening and closing the church doors each day. At the same time, the Catholics and Armenians are also entitled to hold keys.

Archbishop Aristarchos said that the decision was triggered after the door was opened, by either (Roman Catholic) Franciscan or Armenian monks, without the permission of the Greek Orthodox Church.

"We insist on our rights," said Aristarchos in a reference to the Greek Orthodox claim to be the only group with the right to take such an action. He noted that letters had been written both to Catholic and Armenian leaders, setting out the Greek Orthodox position, with the hope that the sides could "finally solve their dispute."

The row has aggravated relations between the Armenian Patriarch, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, and his Greek counterpart, Patriarch Irineos.

In an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, Manoogian described Irineos as "capricious and self-serving." A spokesperson for Archbishop Manoogian also described the decision as a "vicious trick by the Greeks."

"They think that by refusing to give us the keys they are protecting their rights but they are clearly unaware of the sensitivity of the Status Quo," the Armenian Patriarch's spokesperson said.

The latest clash over the keys began after the sacred shrine was caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bitter standoff last year.

A group of Palestinian militants fleeing from Israeli troops took refuge in the church and refused to give themselves up for weeks, before the two sides reached a negotiated settlement to the incident.  Several of the Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the siege, and their bodies were taken from the church by Franciscans. Unable to find their keys at the time, the Franciscans turned to the Armenians who lent them their own.

But the Greek Orthodox monks objected to the doors being opened without their permission to remove the corpses.

The Greek Orthodox monks were also reported to have been furious that their Franciscan counterparts allowed Muslim prayers to be recited over the dead Palestinians, within a section of the church that is controlled by the Greek Orthodox.

Each of the three churches is passionate about their rights within the sanctuary and fears they could lose them forever under any changes to the Status Quo.

Bethlehem has been under Palestinian self-rule since 1995, and the Palestinian Authority says it will try to mediate between the various denominations at the Church of the Nativity.

Copyright © 2003 Ecumenical News International

Related Elsewhere

See also the Daily Telegraph's August 10 report, "Clash over keys to Christ's birthplace."

PBS's Frontline documentary series ran a report on the mid-2002 Church of the Nativity standoff, and has many resources on its website, including a full transcript. The documentary ended with a scene of the three Christian orders arguing over who would be the first to enter the church.

In 2002, Christianity Today's Weblog covered the Church of the Nativity standoff day by day.

Chris Armstrong wrote a Christian History Corner, "Divvying up the Most Sacred Place" last summer reflecting on an incident where chairs, iron bars, and fists flew on the roof of one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The BBC has an article on the church's "turbulent history."