Skip to comments.Muslims Have Kept Watch Over Doors of Christianity's Holiest Shrine for Centuries
Posted on 08/13/2002 2:54:46 PM PDT by marshmallow
JERUSALEM (AP) - Wajeeh Nuseibeh, a Muslim, says someone from his family has opened and closed the massive wooden doors of Christianity's holiest shrine pretty much every day for more than a millennium. Christian sects squabbling over stewardship of the place have never trusted one another with the task.
In the shadow of Mideast violence, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher appears to be a place of profound peace. Visitors are awed by its ancient stone walls, ornate icons and the solemn echo of singing monks.
But the many denominations who must share the massive church have competed for power and quarreled over different rituals and theological points of view for generations.
Built on the site of Golgotha - revered as the spot where Jesus was crucified - the current structure was built by European Crusaders in 1099. It replaced an earlier structure built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.
Squabbles over the care of such a holy site - even down to mundane tasks such as dusting stones and tending candles - are a long tradition. That's why a Muslim must open and close the door each day.
"To be honest, sometimes there is animosity with one another, therefore there can't be agreement on who should take the key," said Father Armando Pierucci, 67, a Franciscan from Italy who plays the church pipe organ.
Tensions still run raw. Coptic and Ethiopian monks, who share control of the roof, hurled stones and threw punches July 28, because a 72-year-old Coptic priest shifted out of the white, hot sun into the shade. His move was considered a challenge to the Ethiopians' sovereignty over a courtyard they've held since 1808.
In 1757, the church was divided into Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic areas under an agreement that also assigned times each group could hold services.
Nuseibeh, whose business card says he is the "Custodian and Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher," admits his family has taken on an unusual job. But the former electronics repairman and tour guide believes his role is vital.
"We are here as a people of peace in the church," he said.
Nuseibeh, 50, took over the task from his father 25 years ago. He still has 400-year-old documents declaring that his family is in control of the doors. Some are painted in gold on deer skin, with the seal of a Turkish sultan.
Another Muslim family, the Joudehs, guards the 10-inch iron key.
The arrangement has made for a quirky ritual. Each morning, a Joudeh hands the key to a Nuseibeh. A priest passes a wooden ladder through a latched window in the door, and the Nuseibeh climbs to unlock the spring-loaded iron lock.
During the last two years of Mideast fighting, Nuseibeh has sent someone else to heave open the heavy wooden doors at 4 a.m., because he fears walking through the city in darkness. But he still makes daily trips to the church.
In 638, an agreement between the conquering Muslim Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab and the Greek patriarch put the church's key in the hands of Nuseibeh's ancestors. His clan had just come to Jerusalem from Medina, as Islamic missionaries, he said.
The Nuseibehs remained the sole gatekeepers until the Crusades, when armies of European knights massacred thousands of people in the Holy Land. The Nuseibehs fled to Nablus and lived there until the next Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, he said.
The Joudeh family took control of the key during Ottoman rule, which began in 1517.
Nuseibeh says sometimes Christian visitors wonder why Muslims are in charge of the entrance to the shrine.
"Some people are nervous when they hear that Muslims are the door keepers," he said. "I tell them this is the reality of this place. We are protecting Christianity to give them their freedom to pray."
Islam: it's not just the Religion of Peace®, but the Religion of Friendly Caretakers as well.
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