Brawling at the Holy Sepulchre


In Israel, as in all countries that contain archeological sites of deep spiritual and religious significance, there tends to be three levels of authenticity and holiness.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

First, those that are almost certainly not genuine but are soaked in prayer through centuries of devotion. Second, those that may or may not be the real thing but inspire believers. Third, those that are certainly or almost certainly the original places of world-changing events. The church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is regarded by virtually every serious archeologist and historian as the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried, and where, according to Christians, the resurrection took place.

So it's particularly tragic, and deeply ironic, that monks from various Orthodox factions have made coming to blows over who owns the place something of a, forgive me, dirty habit. More than this, they do the actual physical fighting just yards away from where the Prince of Peace forgave the world and in front of Israeli Jewish cops who have to get in the middle of the robed rowdies and try to make them behave like Christians.

The most recent incident was just over two weeks ago, when the police arrested two clergymen who were punching and kicking each other as part of a brawl between the Armenian and Greek Orthodox contingents in the church. The Armenians had been taking part in an annual procession that commemorates the finding of the true cross 17 centuries ago. The Greeks, however, insisted on their right to station one of their monks inside the Edicule, the small enclosure built over the likely location of the tomb of Jesus. The Armenians allegedly took umbrage at this and instead of turning the other cheek kicked, literally, a Greek cleric in the middle of one of his.

"We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through and establish a right that they don't have," explained a Greek Orthodox monk, his left eye bleeding after his glasses had been smashed in a fight with an Armenian. "He attacked me from behind", he continued, implying that there was something particularly unholy about a sucker punch. The Armenian stealth monk was unavailable for comment.

In 2004, during another Orthodox festival, a door to the Roman Catholic chapel was left open, almost certainly by mistake. This was regarded as being disrespectful and a fight ensued. Earlier this year on Palm Sunday another brawl began when a Greek monk was thrown out of the church by clergy from a rival group. And when the Israeli police arrived, they too were attacked, in a rare case of Christian unity, by everybody present.

It's all extraordinarily bizarre and grotesque but not quite beyond comprehension. Ancient, dark and layered in shrines and compartments, this is nothing like a conventional church; it is a building constructed piecemeal over what was originally an outdoor execution site and a tomb built into a cave. Western pilgrims tend to be shocked if not dejected by the overwhelming gaudiness, the sheer confusion of the place and often clumsy juxtaposition of the profoundly holy and jarringly superstitious and small-minded.

But this is still the centre of Christianity, surviving in the middle of a world dominated by Islam for more than a thousand years. That it exists at all is a miracle; that it is a magnet for dispute is the sadly inevitable within that supernatural. As ugly as certain aspects of the church's culture can be, this remains an epicentre of the magnificent. Attend a dawn Mass on the very spot where Christ was placed after his death, with the first light of Jerusalem's sun sliding through the massive doors of the groaning building and the chants of the devout and gentle all around, and grace still breaks through the clouds of fleshy brokenness that characterize contemporary Jerusalem.

His smile, God's forgiveness and the shadows of Jesus, triumphed over even a left hook from an angry Greek monk. There is beauty beyond compare here, if we are able and prepared to look between and beyond the human chaos.

Six separate and disputing denominations control the church, however, and their internecine disputes can be absurd to the point of surreal hilarity. A ladder that was put over an entrance in the 19th century has yet to be moved because the sects cannot agree who has the authority to touch it. Some of the sects are aggressively ethnic in their foundation and are still fighting battles that have more to do with atavistic geopolitical claims and grievances than with the teachings of Christ.

As for the Protestants -- not one of the six who control the church's status quo -- many of them prefer to think of what is known as the Garden Tomb in another part of the city as the authentic place of the crucifixion. It isn't, but it looks like it should be. And what is significant of course is that Jesus is not in either of these spots any longer.

So it's fallible, challenging, sometimes nauseating and, as with this latest incident, deeply embarrassing and shameful. People claiming to be Christian acting in a nonChristian manner in the name of Christ. Nothing new there. Christ himself said it would happen and gave no guarantees that it wouldn't occur in the least appropriate of places. It proves nothing.

I prefer to recall one of my many visits to this conduit to the holy, during the height of the bloody and costly Hezbollah war, when I sat with a Franciscan priest in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and asked him to hear my confession. The two of us communicated in shattered English, French and Hebrew. His smile, God's forgiveness and the shadows of Jesus, triumphed over even a left hook from an angry Greek monk. There is beauty beyond compare here, if we are able and prepared to look between and beyond the human chaos.


Michael Coren. "Brawling at the Holy Sepulchre." National Post, (Canada) November 24, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of Michael Coren and the National Post.


Michael Coren (born January 1959 in Essex, England) is a Canadian columnist, author, public speaker, radio host and television talk show host. He is the host of the television series The Michael Coren Show. His articles and speeches often include stories of his own personal spiritual journey. Coren is half Jewish through his father.


He converted to Evangelical Christianity after a conversion experience as an adult, greatly influenced by Canadian televangelist Terry Winter. In early 2004, he embraced Catholicism. He cites St. Thomas More, C.S. Lewis, Ronald Knox and his God-father Lord Longford as spiritual influences, but remains connected to the ecumenical scene in Canada and beyond. He is the author of twelve books, including Mere Christian: Stories from the Light, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis: The Man Who Created Narnia, J.R.R Tolkien: the Man Who Created 'the Lord of the Rings'. He is published in many countries and in more than a dozen languages. He is currently writing a book entitled Socon, A Handbook for Moral Conservatives. Michael Coren is available as a public speaker. Visit his web site here.

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