Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre renovation gets go ahead despite strained religious relations

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is home to three religious denominations Credit: On Assignment

There aren’t many olive trees left on the Mount that bears their name. But you will find a few in a quiet patch of greenery at the foot of the hill - in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The gospels tell us it was here that Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion.

Science has proved that eight of the olive trees in the garden are among the oldest living things on earth.

Tradition has it they are so old they were growing here the night Jesus prayed.

Walk into Jerusalem’s Old City from here and you will tread the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows. It is written that this is the path Christ walked to his execution.

The cobbled alley ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most of the world’s Christians believe it is built on the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There has been a church on this spot since the 4th century.

The church's Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic inhabitants all agreed to vital renovation work Credit: On Assignment

Today three denominations have jurisdiction in the church – the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic.

Over the centuries an uneasy status quo has developed over who does what and where inside what is a myriad of caverns, chapels and inspiring chambers.

Each denomination defends its turf with messianic fervour. But periodically, perceived transgressions lead to clashes between the clergymen.

Fights have erupted between cassock-clad monks wielding broomsticks.

On important Holy Days the Israeli police in Jerusalem are on hand just in case of trouble.

To outsiders the fights look faintly ridiculous, but the police take it very seriously.

“Any dispute over a key, a door, a patch of floor, has, at its heart, hundreds of years of tradition. Our officers have to be conscious of that,” Jerusalem Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told me.

Each denomination defends its turf at with messianic fervour. Credit: On Assignment

Altering the status quo in any way is fraught. But the three denominations did agree that the holiest place within the church, the tomb of Christ – the sepulchre itself, did require renovation.

The work took nine months and was completed just in time for Easter.

Since the Greeks built the shrine encasing the tomb, they were given the job of repairing the masonry. Of course the other two denominations had to have their architects in attendance at all times.

The next renovation project is on the roof of the church. But all’s far from well up there.

The Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Copts have priests and nuns living on the roof, but the two sides haven’t been on speaking terms for years. Each church accuses the other of changing the locks and squatting when heads are turned.

There has been a church on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since the 4th century Credit: On Assignment

Relations between the denominations in the church are such that none of them holds the key to the front door.

Instead, back in the year 1187, a compromise was found. The key was given to a Muslim family.

Twenty-two year old Jawad is the nineteenth generation of the Joudeh family to be the gatekeeper.

He and his father take turns to open up at just before dawn and to close again just after dusk.

Representatives from all three denominations are in attendance of course.

I ask Jawad if he wants his son to continue the tradition.

“Yes,” he says. “It’s a great honour.”

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