Coptic Church Gears Up for a New Fight at Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre

The age-old dispute between this long-suffering sect and its rival, the Ethiopian Church, came to a head last week during a protest against renovations at the sacred site

Outside the Coptic Church, Jerusalem, December 15, 2009
Emil Salman

Disputes among Christian sects and between them and Israeli authorities are almost a tradition at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City.

In recent years the famous church has been relatively quiet despite all the friction. The various rival denominations even cooperated when it came to a plan for complicated renovations, and joined forces to wage a common battle against the state on the issues of land-registration regulations and the property taxes levied on their institutions.

But there’s one dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches that has not waned and once again reared its head last week. The incident involved the forcible dispersal by the Israel Police of a quiet protest by a few Coptic monks, who were objecting to renovations by the Israel Antiquities Authority at St. Michael’s, a chapel at the Holy Sepulchre. The Copts regard the structure as belonging to them, and even though they haven’t had the keys to it for nearly 50 years, they insisted on playing a part in the renovations. The state decided to undertake the work on its own, however, and ran into opposition.

>> Police forcefully arrest Coptic monk, evacuate others from Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The arrest of a Coptic monk outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 24, 2018

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Sunday debated a request from the Copts to issue a stop-work order at the site. The order was not given, but the sides agreed that the IAA would be allowed to do any work necessary to shore up the structure, under the supervision of an engineer employed by the Copts.

Like every other issue involving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the roots of this dispute date to the Middle Ages. It erupted again in the 1970s and was then frozen for a while. However, in light of recent events some members of the Coptic Church are seriously considering the possibility of renewing their struggle against religious and state authorities.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt, and it is linked closely to the Ethiopian church; in effect, the latter is considered to be an offshoot of the former.

For centuries, since its establishment, the leader of the Ethiopian church had been an Egyptian bishop named by the Coptic pope in Egypt, despite the cultural and linguistic differences between the sects. But in 1951, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie led the Ethiopian church to independence and as a result, an Ethiopian bishop was appointed leader for the first time. In 1959 an Ethiopian patriarch was named, although according to tradition someone hoping to fill that post is supposed to receive the blessing of the Coptic Church in Egypt.

Ethiopian monks in the Ethiopian section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, July 29, 2002
Reuters

Both the Ethiopian and Coptic denominations own part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but as opposed to the Greeks, Catholics and Armenians, who own much of the space there and in effect run the church, the Ethiopians and Copts have had to suffice with using a monastery erected on the roof, known as Deir es-Sultan. Brother Marcus, an assistant to Metropolitan (mutran) Anba Antonius, head of the Coptic Church in Jerusalem, said that “outside Deir es-Sultan there are excellent relationships – our pope was accepted warmly in Ethiopia. Inside Deir es-Sultan, it’s terrible.”

The conflict between the rival sects centers around two small chapels leading from the roof to the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre. The Ethiopians insist that, according to tradition, they owned both chapels in the Middle Ages, but in the 17th century the Copts took them over and even burned archival evidence that could prove Ethiopian ownership. The Copts, for their part, say the archive was torched as part of an effort to fight a health epidemic. In any case, until 1970 the Copts controlled both chapels. On Easter that year, Ethiopian monks changed the locks on the door while the Copts were at prayer.

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The then-tense relations between Israel and Nasserite Egypt and Israel's desire to strengthen ties with Ethiopia didn’t help the Copts, who decided to bring the matter to Israel’s Supreme Court. Headed by president Shimon Agranat, the court criticized the goings-on at the site and police activities there, but said that under British Mandatory law it was up to the government to decide to whom the chapels belonged. Since 1971 when that ruling was issued, no such decision has been made.

An Ethiopian monk in Deir es-Sultan
Tess Scheflan

The current dispute erupted more than a year ago when a stone fell from St. Michael's, one of the two chapels in question. The Jerusalem Municipality hastened to close the church based on a law regarding dangerous buildings, and ordered the Copts and the Ethiopians to do renovations. The Copts saw the this as an opportunity to prove their ownership.

“It was a historic opportunity for the Copts to get a foothold back into the chapel. From their standpoint, the state’s intervention meant support for the Ethiopians. The political reality had changed and it was clear that it would immediately be addressed by Netanyahu and [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi and so maybe there would be a chance to demand its return,” said Hana Bendcowsky, of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

“We promised to carry it and we made plans,” said Brother Marcus, adding that due to the sensitivity surrounding the church, the Foreign Ministry preferred to let the state do the renovations. The Copts agreed – but only under certain terms. “Our conditions are that we pay for the renovations, monitor all the work with our own expert and get to approve all the plans,” he added.

Negotiations were held for the past year between the ministry and the Copts but no agreement was reached. The Copts said the state informed them unilaterally two weeks ago that the renovations were to begin last Wednesday. That morning about 20 monks gathered at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre in an attempt to peacefully block the way of the antiquity authority workers. Police were called in to remove them and forcibly did so; photos of a Coptic monk being manhandled outside the church by police, who arrested him, sparked a wave of criticism.

a Coptic monk, Brother Abraham, in a basement chamber below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, February 2, 2016
Emil Salman

The monk was released a short time later, after the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv intervened.

“I don’t see any reason for what happened, this could have been done much more quietly,” Marcus said.

The Copts in Jerusalem represent a minority group in Egypt, and feel weak compared to their coreligionists in the city. Two years ago they lost a long legal battle against a local Palestinian family that claimed ownership to a basement beneath the church, adding to the sect's frustrations. Now they seem determined to fight. Last Wednesday a complaint was filed with the police investigations unit against the officers who arrested the monk. Last Thursday attorney Mazen Kopty filed an urgent request demanding that the IAA freezing the renovation work, which he said was being carried out without the owners’ agreement and without the approval of the ministerial committee that oversees holy sites.

There are those who think the time has come to launch a broader legal battle that would force the state to make a decision on the issue of the ownership of the two holy chapels.

In a statement last Thursday, the metropolitan, Antonius, said he was considering renewing the legal battle against the government over Deir es-Sultan. He cited the government’s failure to carry out Supreme Court ruling years ago regarding the ownership issue.

In response, the Foreign Ministry said: “The State of Israel seeks to repair the hazards at St. Michael’s chapel so as to ensure the safety of visitors and worshippers in the building. The State of Israel works to permit free access to the holy site and continued worship there as part of its commitment to freedom of religion and worship. In cases such as these, where there are disturbances and provocations intended to impede freedom of worship and access to holy sites, Israel will act to safeguard those rights.”