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Why a Muslim now holds the key to Christendom's greatest shrine

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Monks unsure who's turn it is to put away the ladder

In the holiest place of all Christendom, a single Muslim holds the key, Christians fight with one another, and Jewish police intervene -- among the Christians -- to keep the peace. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ's burial and resurrection, is also one of the most ironic places in all Christendom. 


By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
Catholic Online (
7/31/2012 (1 decade ago)

Published in Middle East

Keywords: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Muslim, Israel, police, monks, Orthodox, immovable ladder

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A story reported by the IPS details the strange arrangement that has dominated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for a very long time. Each day, the story reports, a Muslim man, and the only man with permission to wield the keys, unlocks and opens the door to the Church, while three factions within the church vie for control in disputes that frequently leave the church in disrepair and occasionally result in altercations, requiring Israeli police come to mediate the conflict. 

It is, in every way, a microcosm of what's wrong with the Holy Land. A region that should be sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is frequently at the heart of sometimes violent disputes. 

The Holy Land's problems, exacerbated by violence, are bizarre to say the least, which is part of the reason whythis  peculiar arrangement exists at the church.

Every morning, a monk must come to the door which is unlocked by a Muslim man who holds the keys to the church. Muslims have been entrusted with the keys since 1187, primarily because the various Christian factions which reside in the church cannot agree to nearly anything, and therefore to keep the church and its shrine open, the keys are entrusted to a Muslim family. According to historical records, and Adeeb Jawad Joudeh, who holds the keys, they have been handed down from one generation to the next, since being given to the family in 1187 by Sultan Saladin. 

But the heart of the problem is the constant feuding between the Christians entrusted with keeping the site. The church is manned by monks from various Christian religious communities, mostly from the  the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. They include the Franciscan order of the Latin Church as well as monks from various Eastern and Oriental rites of the Church. Protestants have no presence there.

The disagreements between the monks are often so bad that on several notable occasions in recent history, physical conflicts have erupted between the monks and the Israeli police have had to come in to restore order. 

One notable feature of the shrine is the "immovable ladder," a ladder that has literally remained unmoved since being set in place by a worker in 1757, or possibly earlier. Notably, the ladder disappeared for several days in 1997, possibly as a prank, but it was soon returned. An old agreement between the monks holds that nothing can be done in the church except by consensus, and that includes, amazingly enough, the movement of the ladder. And since 1757, the monks haven't agreed to move the ladder. 

The ladder long ago gained significance as a symbol of the division between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. As a consequence, a papal request from the late Pope Paul VI asks that the ladder not be moved until the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches reach a state of authentic ecumenism, moving toward communion. 

This is why the holiest site in all Christendom must be unlocked by a Muslim and policed by Jews. 

It's not a flattering depiction of Christianity and it reveals just how much work the Church must do to heal the divisions in her midst. For now, we can pray the status quo continues as it has since 1187, and the site remains open for all pilgrims, as it should. As we do, we need to pray as well for the healing of the divisions in the separated Body of Christ. The prayer of Jesus Himself still echoes in the land where He walked "Father, may they Be One in Us... so that the world may believe" (John 17)   



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