The historic Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is in danger of collapse.
The church is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom. By tradition, it is the site both of Golgotha where the New Testament says that Jesus was crucified, and the place where Jesus was buried (the sepulchre).
The monastery's two chapels and the tiny rooms where its monks live could crumble, injuring the many tourists who visit the site, as well as the monks who live there, and even the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself.
An engineer who examined the structures recently said the complex was a "danger to human life." As long ago as 2004, before the situation worsened to its present emergency state, the Interior Ministry said it would pay for renovations. However, because of a long-standing dispute between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose clergy live at the site, and the Coptic Church, which claims ownership of it, the parties have not managed to reach an agreement that would allow renovations to proceed. The Interior Ministry has made clear to various church officials over the years that it would pay for the work only if the various ownership issues were resolved among the denominations.
The head of the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem, Archbishop Matthias, sent a letter about 10 days ago to Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and to the minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs, Rafi Eitan, in which he warned of the sorry state of the complex as well as of his unwillingness to come to an agreement with the Copts. With regard to the Interior Ministry's demand that the two denominations come to terms, the archbishop said: "This condition is completely unacceptable to us, since we do not recognize any right of the Coptic church in the area in question. Moreover, it is inconceivable that the implementation of emergency repairs at the holy site would be conditioned on the consent of the Coptic church. Indeed, there is disagreement between us and the Coptic church regarding the rights at the site in question, but that is precisely the reason we are turning to the Israeli authorities, as a neutral factor, to carry out the necessary repairs."
The church commissioned an engineer's report, submitted by Yigal Bergman of the construction supervision firm Milav, who wrote, among other things that the complex was in a "dangerous state of construction. The structures are full of serious engineering damage that creates safety hazards and endangers the lives of the monks and the visitors. This is an emergency ... also due to the immediate danger to the site that would damage other parts of the nearby churches." The report also highlighted dangerous problems in the electrical and sewerage infrastructure of the ancient buildings.
Deir al-Sultan monastery contains 26 small rooms for the use of Ethiopian monks, four service and storage rooms, a large open courtyard and two chapels, one above the other, which are entered from the courtyard and exit into the entrance plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre below.
This is far from the first dispute between the denominations that share space in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre regarding its maintenance and the use of its various areas. Three large denominations have control of the church: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Smaller denominations with rights in the church include the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Copts, as well as the Syriac Orthodox. One of the best known disputes between the communities surrounds the question of which denomination has the right to remove a ladder that was placed on a ledge outside an upper-floor window in the 19th century. Because no agreement has been forthcoming, the ladder stands there to this day, above the main entrance to the church.