Here’s some good news, for a change, about Christianity in the Middle East. This fall, workers began much-needed repairs to the roof Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of the birth of Christ.
The roof of the church has been in a terrible state for some time. Experts warn it could collapse at any moment. Getting agreement on repairs has been exceptionally difficult, however. There were geopolitical issues. To qualify for UN restoration funds, the building had to be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. This proved controversial–the US and Israel worried about the implications naming the site would have for Palestinian statehood–but the church was ultimately added to the list last year. (The church has long been a flashpoint for world intrigue. In the nineteenth century, someone stole the star that marks the place of Christ’s birth; the theft led to the Crimean War.)
The most significant hurdle, though, has been getting the agreement of the Christian communions that share the church–Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. The three share the church under the “Status Quo,” a set of rules and customs that date back centuries to Ottoman times, and which also govern other Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. According to custom, repairing part of the church, or even paying for repairs, is an assertion of ownership. As a result, each communion carefully guards against the possibility that another will undertake repairs in common areas, like the roof, and thereby gain rights by a sort of adverse possession. Fistfights among the monks are not uncommon.
How did the three communions reach agreement on the repairs this time? No one’s saying much, but the AP reports:
A senior church official said the three denominations would never have been able to reach an agreement on their own. But once the Palestinian Authority stepped in, all three churches accepted the decision. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with the media.
Well, anyway, the point is they did agree and the church will be preserved. And that is wonderful news for Christians and people of good will generally. Congratulations to everyone concerned. And Merry Christmas!