A long-running row over the rights to a rooftop section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could bring the entire structure tumbling down, destroying Christendom's holiest site.
While renovations are needed across the church, the small Deir al-Sultan monastery on its roof has reached an "emergency state", according to engineers who completed an evaluation this month.
The Times has learnt that in 2004 the two chapels and twenty-six tiny rooms that comprise the monastery were pronounced in dire need of reinforcement. They have since deteriorated to the point where engineers now fear that they will crash through the roof and into the church, venerated by millions of Christians as the site of the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Yigal Bergman, the engineer who led the investigation, reported that the church, situated in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, was in a dangerous state of construction. "The structures are full of serious engineering damage that creates safety hazards and endangers the lives of the monks and the visitors. This is an emergency".
Local officials are pressing the church to begin repairs before the heavy autumn rains begin but have stopped short of interfering directly in its notoriously acrimonious affairs.
The church has been vigilantly managed by six competing and often fractious Christian denominations — Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian — since an agreement reached under Ottoman law in 1757.
Rival denominations often battle for access or space and the congregation at the annual Easter service sometimes resembles the terraces of a boisterous football match. The keys to the main entrance of the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century because the Christians do not trust one another.
The dispute over the Deir al-Sultan monastery is a more recent phenomenon dating back to Easter 1970. When the Coptic monks, who had controlled the area, went to pray in the main church and left the rooftop unattended, Ethiopian monks seized the opportunity to change the locks at the entrances before the Copts returned.
Relations between the two groups have remained tense ever since, with the Coptic Church refusing to relinquish its claim to the monastery and posting a single monk there at all times. In the midst of a blistering heatwave in the summer of 2002, the Coptic monk on duty moved his chair from its agreed spot to a shadier corner. The move was taken as a hostile manoeuvre by the Ethiopians and 11 monks needed hospital treatment after the ensuing fracas.
The rest of the church factions have been unable to mediate between the two groups, even in the case of minor repairs or renovations to the rooftop. Archbishop Matthias, head of the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem, wrote a letter to the Israeli Interior Ministry and the Bureau of Jerusalem Affairs this month describing the dire state of the buildings.
The Archbishop stated in the letter that he did not recognise the right of the Coptic Church in any part of the disputed area. He said, according to the Haaretz Hebrew daily, that it was "inconceivable that the implementation of emergency repairs at the holy site would be conditioned on the consent of the Coptic Church". The Archbishop added that he was turning to the Israeli authorities, as a neutral party, to carry out the repairs.
Israel has offered to shoulder part of the cost of repairs but will do so only if the Christian factions first come to an agreement among themselves.
The Copts, who are mainly of Egyptian origin, received preferential treatment during Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule. That changed after Israel took control of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, fought against a combined Arab force, including Egypt. The Copts accused Israel of using its position in Jerusalem to aid the Ethiopians in 1970 in their takeover of Deir al-Sultan.
Nine years later, when Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David peace accords, Coptic officials hoped that the rooftop monastery would be restored to them. Israel, however, is mindful of its sensitive relations with Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Jews lived and were brought to the Jewish state in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III said: "There is a greater issue here, something that has to be addressed sooner or later. To be honest, so far the [Israeli] Government has tried to keep out of the dispute. But now it seems that the Government is under pressure to demonstrate concern in helping resolve the issue."
— In the 19th century a ladder was placed on a ledge above the main entrance to the church. A priest from another denomination accused the man of trespassing and a row began that has yet to be resolved. The ladder is still there
— In 1995 the church announced it had reached a decision on how to paint a part of the dome in the central part of the structure — but only after 17 years' debate
— In 2004 during Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Greek Orthodox faction and a fight broke out. There were several arrests
— Another fight broke out on Palm Sunday this year when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were attacked by the feuding monks and several people were taken to hospital
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