A Moved Chair and an Allegedly Bawdy Nun Set Off a Holy Riot

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Mounting tension between Ethiopian and Coptic priests, monks and nuns over the strict rules defining control over parts of the Holy Sepulchre's roof, yesterday broke out into an all-out fistfight as Coptic and Ethiopian priests argued that each side had violated the sensitive status quo governing the division of the roof between them.

The fight, which included stone throwing, ended with injuries for about a dozen of the priests from both sides who needed medical treatment.

The church, traditional scene of the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, has long been a source of disputes among various churches over who controls the various parts of it. A deal worked out in 1757 gave specific control to each church over specific parts of the church and violations -whether accidental or deliberate and sometimes over the most petty questions of who cleans where inside the ancient chambers of the church - can result in flare-ups of violence as occurred yesterday.

The specific dispute between the Copts and the Ethiopians is over the roof, and goes back to a 19th century epidemic that killed off the Ethiopians, who had control over the entire roof. That enabled the the Egyptian Copts to take over the roof, says Hagai Siton, the attorney for the Ethiopians. But the British Mandatory authorities resurrected the 1757 division, giving the roof and its buildings to the Ethiopians, but the small monastery on the roof to the Copts.

According to the agreement, a Coptic priest sits guard at the entrance to the monastery, and he has a room inside the courtyard controled by the Ethiopians. But a month ago the Coptic monk assigned to sit outside the monastery moved his chair to the shade of a tree inside the courtyard controled by the Ethiopians. They demanded he move his chair back, and he refused, claiming he was ill and needed his rest.

The police, called to intercede, ruled the aging monk would be allowed to sit in the courtyard for 10 to 15 minutes a day, accompanied by a policeman, and then go back to his seat outside the courtyard, at the entrance. The Ethiopians objected and complained to the Public Security Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Tension has mounted since the chair was originally moved, and yesterday's fistfight broke out when a Coptic monk complained that an Ethiopian nun tried to touch him. The Copts threw rocks at the Ethiopians, claiming the Ethiopians threw rocks back, but the Ethiopians deny it.

After the fracas, the Ethiopian ambassador to Israel arrived on the scene and said his government would take control of the matter and resolve it through diplomatic channels with the Egyptians, and not through the legal channels in Israel. In that case, Jerusalem is likely to come under pressure from Addis Ababa and Cairo as the two capitals apply pressure on the government to resolve the matter to their satisfaction.

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