Churches Reach Historic Accord on Renovation of Holy Sepulchre

The Jerusalem church, considered one of the holiest to Christians, has not undergone renovations since 1947 due to disagreements between the bodies that control it.

The Chapel of Saint Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Olivier Fitoussi

In about six weeks, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre will begin its first major renovation since Israel was established in 1948.

The work was made possible by a historic agreement among the three churches that control the compound – Custodia Terrae Sanctae, a Franciscan order that represents the Catholic Church; the Greek Orthodox patriarchate; and the Armenian Patriarchate.

The compound is famed as a managerial nightmare, due to the division of control enshrined in an agreement that was signed over 150 years ago. The agreement assigns every bit of the building – every floor tile, door, window and corridor – to a specific church, and any alternation, addition or repair requires the agreement of all three churches.

For decades, parts of the building have been falling into disrepair because the churches couldn’t agree on even the most minor fixes, like replacing a door or repairing a pipe. Moreover, one of the holiest sites in the complex is also one of the most neglected – the Edicule of the Tomb, where tradition holds that Jesus was buried and then resurrected. The shrine was built in 1810, and for decades now, it has suffered from water damage.

The last time the complex underwent major renovations was in 1947, when the British, who then controlled the city, reinforced it with an exterior scaffolding of iron girders.

By about a year ago, the Edicule had deteriorated so badly that the police and the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to close it to visitors for several hours a day, saying it was dangerous. That outraged Christian communities, who said the Israelis – unlike the British in 1947 – hadn’t bothered to consult them before closing the building.

Nevertheless, the decision spurred the three churches to negotiate over renovating the complex, and recently, they signed an agreement. A source familiar with the issue said the negotiations were concluded in just three weeks, aided by the sense of urgency caused by the Edicule’s closure and the personalities of the three churches’ current leaders.

The renovations will be done by a team from the National Technical University of Athens. Work will start on May 15 and is expected to last eight months. The complex will remain open throughout this time.