If pilgrims worshipping in the Church of the Nativity look up at the roof,
they will see a battlefield threatening the future of one of Christendom's most
Squabbling over crucial roof repairs between the three Christian
communities who share custodianship of Jesus's birthplace is endangering the
Large holes in the 500-year-old lead roof have let rainwater flood inside
for years. It streams down the walls and threatens to wash away Crusader-era
murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics.
A botched repair by the Greeks, in
which the roof was given a waterproof lining, has created new problems as
condensation now eats into the plaster and rots wooden beams.
authoritative survey for decades found that the wood was so badly damaged that a
large truss was only being prevented from crashing to the floor by
But while the three communities accept that repairs are needed,
mutual suspicion means they cannot agree on how to carry them out.
The first basilica around the grotto marking Christ's birthplace was built
in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine the Great. The existing structure
dates largely from a 6th century reconstruction by Emperor Justinian.
Christian buildings in the Holy Land were sacked by the Persians in about 620
but the Church of the Nativity was spared because The Three Wise Men on an
external mosaic were believed to come from Persia.
Schisms led to shared
custodianship between the three Christian communities. Visitors today see
Franciscans in cassocks walking past cowled Armenian monks through clouds of
The Armenians and Franciscans each claim ownership of a third
of the church but the Orthodox Greeks disagree, saying that as descendants of
the Byzantine founders they should enjoy majority rights.
According to a 1852
Ottoman diktat all three communities must be given a key to the lock on the
front door of the church.
Three years ago the Greeks angered the others when
they changed the lock one night under cover of darkness. They argued that the
diktat grants the others keys but not the right to use them.
Rows between the three communities have maddened outsiders before. After
the British conquered Palestine in 1917, an army officer found that the Greeks
had built an ugly wall in front of the basilica's main icon screen.
officer, Ronald Storrs, discovered that the three communities all agreed the
wall should be taken down but not on who should pay for its removal. "I was
allowed the honour of effecting the payment myself,'' he later wrote.
The Ottoman agreement governing the Holy Places is known as the 'status quo' and has remained unchanged despite the passage of over 150 years and several 'regime changes' in the area. There is always a Palestinan Authority policeman on duty in the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, and he is just the latest in a line of policemen who have been in that place uninteruptedly since the Sublime Port gave the order for a continuous police presence in the basilica in 1873 when the Greeks pillaged the grotto of the Nativity which was in the care of the Franciscans (8 franciscans were wounded) - no subsequent authority has revoked the order.
In 1847, the silver star that the Franciscans placed on the site of the Nativity was removed by the Greeks. The subsequent tensions between France and Russia contributed to the start of the Crimean War.