25/11/2005

Holy Sepulchre - the main door

 

 

Many pilgrims who visit the Holy Land and even the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre do not realize that even today the rigid "code of the status quo" describes exactly the times and modality in which the main door of the basilica is opened and closed. The keys of the basilica are kept by two Moslem families, the Judeh and the Nuseibeh. The door is in fact locked from the outside!

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

Wajeeh Nuseibeh is sitting on a bench in the shadow of a giant wooden door studded with iron. The door is so big that it seems to shrink Wajeeh to the size of a church mouse. A portly man of 55 years, Wajeeh has one of the world's more unusual jobs: his business card reads: "Custodian and Door-Keeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher." The Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, is Christianity's holiest shrine. Believers say it houses Golgotha, the site where Jesus Christ was crucified, the Stone of Unction on which Christ lay, and the tomb from which he rose again. Yet, for centuries, the guardianship of the Sepulcher has lain with a Muslim family whose latest representative is Wajeeh. "Nobody in the whole world," he says, "is allowed to open the church but me."

The practice of a Muslim guarding the Sepulcher began in A.D. 638, when the Islamic ruler Caliph Omar captured Jerusalem and placed one of his Arab warriors, an ancestor of the Nuseibehs, in charge. Since then, the Nuseibehs have not only guarded the church but acted as referees among seven warring Christian groups; the three most powerful—Roman Catholics, Greeks, and Armenians—own 70% of the property. Each group professes to be the rightful heir of the shrine. They loathe one another in a most un-Christian fashion, contesting every angel's hair-breadth of holy space inside the cavernous basilica. A few years ago, some 500 Greek and Franciscan monks brawled for hours, tossing benches and clubbing each other with giant candlestick holders, all because one sect might have trespassed on another's sacred property. Centuries of suspicion and envy have made it so only a Muslim can be trusted with the Sepulcher's keys. Says Wajeeh: "The Christians see me as neutral."

 

 

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