How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil upon the head running down upon the beard… Psalm 133:1-2
The discovery of an urgent need to repair and renovate the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher has had the good effect of bringing together Christian churches who have not always been cooperative with one another.
The area of the church that houses the tomb of Jesus (known as the “Edicule”) has not been touched since 1810 and is in serious disrepair. However, this area is under the shared custody of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, and the brothers-in-Christ have occasionally engaged in brawls so heated that the intervention of the Israeli riot police was needed.
Thankfully, this past week the three churches put their differences aside and started the first renovation of the site in 200 years. Rev. Samuel Aghoyan of the Armenian Church related to reporters that “We equally decided the required renovation was necessary to be done, so we agreed upon it.”
According to the Associated Press, “The project will bolster the structure by, among other things, replacing the mortars and strengthening the columns. It is expected to take eight to 12 months, during which time pilgrims will be able to continue visiting the site.” Previously the area was simply held together by scaffolding, and the churches did not want to touch it until repairs were absolutely needed. Work officially began on June 6 and will continue until the work is completed.
The project is not an easy one, requiring slow and delicate work. Being the holiest site in all of Christianity, no one wants to make a mistake. By the end of it, “the project will cost about $3.3 million.” Each church is contributing money towards the project in accord with the “Status Quo” agreement made in 1852. Even the King of Jordan made a personal donation in honor of his country’s historic role in safeguarding the holy sites of Jerusalem.
However, the local leaders of each church went a step further and “posed and shook hands in front of the scaffolding erected around the tomb ahead of the work.” This was not a necessary part of the “Status Quo” and is seen by many as a needed step towards more peaceful relations. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem agreed, saying, “What has happened is a very good sign, a sign of togetherness.”
All of this occurs during the pontificate of Pope Francis, who has encouraged increased dialogue with the Orthodox churches. In the past few years he has met with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, and most recently with the leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Christian unity has become even more important in recent years as Christians are continually slaughtered and persecuted in the Middle East. It is believed that this tragic reality and the constant example of Pope Francis have inspired these three churches to stop throwing punches and start building bridges.