Igniting holy fires

By David Rapp


Nisan 21, 5765

Only two people know what really happened at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the ceremony of the holy fire three years ago: the representative of the Greek Orthodox Church and the representative of the Armenian Church. These are the only two members of the clergy who entered the Holy Sepulchre's burial chamber (Edicule), in the midst of one of the most important rites in the calendar of the Eastern Orthodox churches, which is held the day before their Easter holiday.

The two marched together, as they have during recent years, into the Chapel of the Angel, which leads to the burial chamber - the room where Jesus' empty grave stands. A small oil lamp stands on the grave. According to tradition, every year on the Sabbath of Light, the lamp is miraculously lit by fire that descends from the heavens. The holy light symbolizes the rebirth of Jesus, who came to the world to redeem humanity.

Every year, the two clerics use this fire to light torches they hold in their hands, in order to bring it to the thousands of believers crowding both inside and outside of the church. That is what was supposed to happen on the Sabbath of Light in 2002. There are contradictory versions as to what transpired that year, but they don't have to do with the miracles. The holy fire, which has been appearing in Jerusalem since the ninth century, arrived then as well.

The differences of opinion relate to what happened between the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Irineos I, and Samuel Aghoyan, the representative of the Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, in the burial chamber and as they made their way out. But the outcome is very clear: The holy fire in the torch of the Armenian representative was extinguished. According to the Armenians, when their representative tried to exit first from the chapel, as was customary for many years, the Greek Orthodox patriarch refused to let him do so. They claim that the patriarch even grabbed the robe of the Armenian, and in the end extinguished the fire in his torch. The Greek Orthodox claim that the Armenian representative was not supposed to enter the burial chamber with the patriarch at all, but was supposed to remain in the Chapel of the Angel that leads to it.

Whatever the case, instead of light being spread in the dark space of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a rumor spread about a conflict between the two religious leaders. A fistfight broke out among the believers, people were hurt and the police was forced to enter the church and intervene.

Unresolved conflict

In the two years that have passed since the incident, the Sabbath of Light ceremonies have been held in relative quiet, but the conflict has not been resolved, and it is liable to erupt again. However, it is clear that the differences of opinion surrounding entering and exiting the tomb, or concerning the order of the lighting of the torches, are a symptom of much more profound controversies. These have been evident for years between the Greek Orthodox church, the strongest and most dominant of the Eastern churches, and its smaller and weaker counterparts - including the Armenian Church, as well the Coptic and Jacobite-Syrian churches, which all celebrate the Sabbath of Light on the same date.

The Armenians and the Greek Orthodox are divided on theological issues and on questions regarding ownership of land and property, not necessarily in that order, and in the background there are additional tensions. Every time such a conflict or debate erupts, each side bases itself on historical precedents, documents (including Crusader, Ottoman and Mandatory ones), and of course on indisputable theological evidence. Israeli representatives do everything possible so as not to have to intervene in these issues. The fact that tensions erupt in an area where Israel is sovereign means that in the end a decision will have to be made.

Tomorrow, the day before the Easter holiday celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Sabbath of Light ceremony will take place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In anticipation of this event, there have been deliberations in recent months in the High Court of Justice over the request of the Armenian Church and its patriarch to have the court order the Israeli government to make a decision regarding the conflict, and to instruct the police to enforce the traditional procedures followed during the ceremony "as was customary until the violation of the Ottoman status quo," according to the petition.

The request was rejected. In its decision, the High Court wrote that "even the adversaries do not differ regarding the fact that the nature of the conflict places the subject outside the area of judicial decision." Thus responsibility for clarifying and solving the conflict was placed on the government. The ruling also stipulated that a promise should be made that a representative of the Israeli government would do everything in his power to bridge between the positions and to solve the conflict peacefully, even if only with a temporary arrangement. Minister for Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, who was appointed to try to mediate between the two sides, did in fact succeed in bringing to the High Court a joint declaration by the two patriarchs, who called on their worshipers not to engage in violence. However, for now, a genuine solution is not in the offing.

Judging by history, we should be warned. In 1834, the Sabbath of Light ended in disaster, although Ibrahim Pasha, the son of the Egyptian governor under Ottoman rule, participated in the ceremony that day. A riot developed, and the excessive crowds and the thick smoke that rose from the candles lit in the church only exacerbated it. According to various sources, dozens of people were killed.

This event was observed by a British tourist, Robert Curzon. In a book about travelers to the Land of Israel in the 19th century, edited by Nathan Shor, Curzon's testimony is brought, and it also includes several details that should place the religious wars of our times in an interesting perspective: The parade of the Armenians did not take place, wrote Curzon in his journal, since the Armenian patriarch gave a sermon to the members of his church, in which he explained the lies and deception of the miracle of the descent of the holy fire from heaven, to the total surprise of his listeners, who for generations had nurtured an unquestioning faith in this annual miracle.

Shor also cites in the book the impression of an Anglican priest named Chester, who had visited Jerusalem several years earlier, and was shocked most of all by what took place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He noted that a spirit of profound hatred and an atmosphere of competition prevailed between the various ethnic groups who claimed to be Christian, and said that at every opportunity, they condemned one another and tried to bribe the Turks to suppress their rivals.

This testimony - which preceded the famous journal of travels in the Holy Land by Mark Twain by decades, but is similar to it - is characterized by a condescending tone that stresses Eastern "primitiveness." The search for the rational in the faith of the other is perhaps the most irrational act mentionable in this context. The disdain toward the Sabbath of Light on the part of quite a few Catholics and Jews is especially surprising when it comes from the mouths of those who believe wholeheartedly in the miracle of the Eucharist in the Catholic mass, or those who only a few days earlier opened the door to Elijah the Prophet on the seder night.

The king's word

In the High Court decision to reject the request of the Armenian church, which is explained over three pages, it says that "the conflict before us is a conflict between religious groups, regarding the way a religious ceremony is conducted in a holy place, and it is situated in the very heart of Article 2 of the Palestine (Holy Places) Order in Council 1924, which specifically excludes conflicts of this kind from the jurisdiction of the courts." The paper is referring to British legislation from 1924, after the Mandate government began to rule Palestine, which recognizes the status quo in places holy to Christianity, and excludes issues related to these sites from the jurisdiction of the local courts and transfers them to the Mandate government.

The piety with which the High Court justices cite the British legislation is not surprising. Attorney Amir Kadari, who represented the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in the proceedings, says that the Ottoman government also tried not to intervene in religious conflicts, whereas during the period of the British Mandate, it was unequivocally decided that matters of the religious status quo and of the holy places are not under the jurisdiction of the courts. "The British were afraid to place these issues into the hands of local judges. We claimed in the proceedings that even a temporary injunction on this issue would in effect be interference in questions relating to the status quo."

The High Court has been rescued, at least for the time being, from the attempt to place it into the Edicule, but in its decision, it emphasized how explosive the issue is: "We must take into account that thousands of believers participate in the Sabbath of Light ceremony," states the court. "The ceremony takes place in a closed structure without an emergency exit .... The police's mission to maintain public order and welfare under these circumstances is difficult and sensitive."

About a year ago, attorney Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, an expert on Jerusalem and the holy sites, submitted a comprehensive opinion regarding the arrangements during the Sabbath of Light ceremonies. The opinion was requested by a representative of the Armenian patriarchate, attorney Eitan Epstein, and it was also presented during the recent High Court proceedings. In it, Berkowitz surveys the history of the conflict between the two churches, the status quo arrangements and the arguments that have reached a peak in recent years.

Alongside firmans (Ottoman laws), maps and documentation of historical prayer arrangements, his opinion also includes a letter sent by the Greek Orthodox patriarch to his Armenian colleague in 2003. In the letter, Irineos I mentions that in 2002, after the fire in the torch of the Armenian representative was extinguished, he tried to relight it with a lighter, in a manner that does not dignify the sacred site. The patriarch claims that according to the status quo, he is the only one permitted to enter the tomb and to bring the holy fire from it. If an Armenian representative has, in fact, entered the tomb chapel in recent years, wrote Irineos I in his letter, "due the illness of our predecessor, or due to lack of exact knowledge of somebody from us, this indeeds comprises a violation of the status quo."

Berkowitz claims, on the other hand, that the right of the Armenian patriarch or his representative to receive the holy fire directly from the lamp in the Chapel of the Tomb is anchored in historical sources, in the status quo arrangements and in testimony in the Greek and Armenian literature. He mentions that even on the day on which the conflict erupted in the church in 2002, the Greek Orthodox patriarch did not argue with the right of the representative of the Armenian patriarch to enter the chapel together with him. "The Armenian patriarch should definitely not be forced to receive the holy fire from the Greek patriarch rather than directly," wrote Berkowitz, adding that this would be "a humiliating blow to the religious faith and the independent and unique status of the Armenian church."

Attorney Kadari said that the Greek Orthodox church that he represents recently turned to its own expert, who in a few months will submit a detailed opinion. He mentions the senior status of the Greek Orthodox Church, which he claims is recognized by the Armenians as well. He says that "their insistence on entering together has led to the rejection of the compromise proposal of Minister Sharansky, according to which they could enter to light the fire immediately after the exit of the Greek Orthodox patriarch."

The heightened tension between the two religious groups is apparently also related to the shake-up the Greek Orthodox patriarchate underwent following the death of the previous patriarch, and the appointment of Irineos I to replace him, a few months before Easter 2002. Kadari believes that it is possible that the Armenians saw an opportunity then to improve their position vis-a-vis the senior echelons of the church. But there are also those who think that it was actually the new patriarch who decided to change the custom of joint entry, perhaps in order to emphasize the greater status of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, which has dimmed somewhat in recent years.