Israel's responsibility for the holy places in Jerusalem sometimes involves it in disputes and power struggles between religious communities. There is no better example than the centuries-old dispute between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church over the control of the Deir al-Sultan Monastery on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City.
According to Christian tradition, Deir al-Sultan (the sultan's monastery) was part of the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took to his crucifixion. The Ethiopians and Copts fought over this sacred site and all the governments that ruled here were forced to deal with the dispute.
In the days of Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule in East Jerusalem, the Copts received preferential treatment. At Easter 1970, under Israeli rule, when the Copts went to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Ethiopian monks took advantage of the situation and changed the locks at the entrances to Deir al-Sultan. The Israeli police posted at the site to prevent violent clashes did not intervene, and since then the Ethiopians have controlled the monastery.
Over the years several attempts have been made to settle the dispute and a special ministerial committee was set up for this purpose. Israel was required to take into consideration its sensitive relations with Ethiopia and Egypt, where the Coptic Church is based. But the situation did not change and experts say there is no chance of reaching an agreement between the rival churches.
The problem is that structures at Deir al-Sultan are deteriorating. At the beginning of the week, Haaretz cited a report of an engineer hired by the Ethiopian Church who described "an emergency situation" at the site. He warned that the structures were in danger of collapse, which would jeopardize monks' and visitors' lives and damage the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself.
The Ethiopian patriarch told Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan of the building's condition and warned them of the danger. The Interior Ministry suggested renovating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the ministry's expense four years ago, but conditioned this on an agreement between the Ethiopians and Copts. No agreement was reached and the Ethiopian patriarch even objected to it explicitly in his approach to the ministers.
Due to the risk to the lives of the monks and visitors and the danger to one of the world's holiest sites, the government must not neglect the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It must exercise its authority to maintain public safety and repair the building, taking great care not to intervene or take a stand in the fundamental dispute between the churches.
Such an intervention has precedents: In 1919 and 1927, under British rule, the Jerusalem municipality carried out vital repairs in Deir al-Sultan, then in the Copts' hands. Mayor Uri Lupolianski has said he would try to mediate between the churches. Even with good will, it is hard to see Lupolianski resolving such an ancient dispute. He would be better off working out with the government how best to save the Christian holy site from collapse, drawing on precedents and consulting with the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments.