Jerusalem brawl

November 15, 2008

Well a bunch of the monks were whooping it up
In Jerusalem last week.
There was Gregory the Armenian
And Constantine the Greek;
There were worshippers with kerchiefed heads
Who stood behind in the gloom
As a sacred rite was taking place
In the Church of the Holy Tomb.

Nobody seems exactly sure
Who threw the initial punch,
But the Greeks stood in the Armenians’ way,
And told them to go to lunch.
Words turned to shoves, then off came the gloves,
And the fists flew fast and free
Before the ancient sepulchre
Where lay divinity.

Then Yuri the Israeli cop
Pulled Gregory to the floor
While Yiayia Parasceva
Kicked the cop, and cursed and swore.
Then Constantine threw Fr. Sam
A quick right to the cheek.
But Deacon Dave fought back and gave
A good gash to the Greek.

After the last punch had been thrown
Nobody seemed ashamed.
Each swore his proper innocence;
Each side the other blamed.
And cameramen had filmed events
So all the world could see
This edifying Christian scene
On digital TV.

How glad I am to be in a Church
Where churchmen defend their rights,
Where every inch of territory
Occasions feuds and fights,
Where honest people take the time
To settle an old score
And, in defense of holy things,
Act like the devil’s whore.


My apologies to Robert Service. The above verses attempt to immortalize an altercation which took place last Sunday morning at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The names are fictitious, but the events took place more or less as described. If anything, the brawl was more serious than I have been able to describe it here; it amounted to a liturgical desecration. The Armenian Orthodox Church was celebrating the feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross, one of four feasts of the Cross on the Armenian calendar. Undoubtedly, the fact that this particular observance of the feast was taking place at the very place where Jesus was buried invested the ceremony with a special solemnity.

The Greeks claim that it is customary for a Greek monk to be present inside the Edicule, the sanctuary built over the traditional site of Jesus’ burial, whenever any non-Greek-Orthodox Christian enters the structure. The Armenians maintain that it is customary for their liturgical use of the sanctuary to occur without a Greek chaperone. As yet I have found no evidence that would allow me to judge of the truth of either of these claims. The altercation took place Sunday morning after some Greek clergy interrupted the Armenian procession in order to press their case.

Here is how Matt Friedman, a reporter from the Associated Press, described the event:

Israeli police rushed into one of Christianity’s holiest churches Sunday and arrested two clergymen after an argument between monks erupted into a brawl next to the site of Jesus’ tomb.

The clash broke out between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

It began as Armenian clergymen marched in an annual procession commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. It ended with the arrival of dozens of riot policemen who separated the sides, seizing a bearded Armenian monk in a red-and-pink robe and a black-clad Greek Orthodox monk with a bloody gash on his forehead. Both men were taken away in handcuffs.

Six Christian sects divide control of the ancient church. They regularly fight over turf and influence, and Israeli police are occasionally forced to intervene.

The feud revolves around a demand by the Greek Orthodox to post a monk inside the Edicule – the ancient structure built on what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus – during the Armenian procession. The Armenians refused, and when they tried to march the Greek Orthodox monks blocked their way.

“We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through…and establish a right that they don’t have,” said a young Greek Orthodox monk with a cut next to his left eye. The monk, who gave his name as Serafim, said he sustained the wound when an Armenian punched him from behind and broke his glasses.

Father Pakrat of the Armenian Patriarchate said the Greek demand was against the status quo arrangement and against the internal arrangement of the Holy Sepulcher. He said the Greeks attacked first.

Archbishop Aristarchos, the chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, said his monks had not initiated the violence. “I’m sorry that these events happened in front of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the most holy religious monument of Christianity,” he said.

The rest of the article is also worth reading; it may be found at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1035666.html.

The Guardian website has a video of the brawl: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2008/nov/10/armenian-greek-clergy-brawl.

Is it too much to hope that the global news coverage of this ugly event might actually shame the Churches into adopting a common policy towards use and ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?

One Response to “Jerusalem brawl”

  1. bekkos Says:

    I found today that the link to the AP article at haaretz.com no longer works. So here is the rest of the article:

    After the brawl, the church was crowded with Israeli police holding assault rifles and equipped with riot gear, standing beside Golgotha, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and the long smooth stone marking the place where tradition holds his body was laid out.

    Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were forced to intervene after fighting was reported. They arrested two monks, one from each side, he said.

    The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulcher.

    The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit in the church, which regularly fills with thousands of pilgrims and has only one main door, but the plan is on hold because the sects cannot agree where the exit will be built. In another example, a ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century has remained there ever since because of a dispute over who has the authority to take it down. More recently, a spat between Ethiopian and Coptic Christians is delaying badly needed renovations to a rooftop monastery that engineers say could collapse.

    Control of the ancient church is divided between six Christian sects. They regularly fight over turf and influence, and Israeli police are occasionally forced to intervene.

    The fight is part of a growing rivalry over religious rights at the church.

    On Palm Sunday earlier this year, dozens of Greek and Armenian priests and worshippers exchanged blows at the very site and pummeled police with palm fronds when they tried to break up the brawl.


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