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A sectarian squabble over the Christian world´s holiest of holies

Sunday Times (London)

February 20, 2005, Sunday

A sectarian squabble over the Christian world’s holiest of holies

by Anthony Sattin

HOLY FIRE:The Battle for Christ’s Tomb by Victoria Clark Macmillan £20 pp294

Nobody knows exactly where Jesus was placed after the crucifixion, but -in a rare instance of harmony -most archeologists and biblical historians agree that it was somewhere on the land now occupied by Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Christian world’s most sacred shrine.

Religions seem to breed contentions, and Christianity is no exception. For while there is broad consensus over the location of Jesus’s burial place, there is none over which Christian sect should have control of the site. This disagreement bubbles beneath the surface of inter-Christian relations throughout the year, but tends to erupt each Easter Saturday at a ceremony when a supposedly miraculous fire is seen to emerge from the tomb. Candles are lit from this “holy fire” and taken across the city and now, thanks to aviation, around the world, as a sign of Jesus’s resurrection.

Three years ago, the Greek patriarch and an Armenian priest began to fight over who should light the first candle: the patriarch won, but left the tomb with only one shoe. Over the centuries, the ceremony has led to riots and deaths. It is one of many cases of what Edward Lear so aptly called Jeru- salem’s “squabblepoison”.

Victoria Clark’s third book opens with a description of the Holy Fire ceremony of 2002 and then introduces us to the main Christian sects in the city. From the Latins and the Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, to the “breakaway” Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians, each sect believes it has a divine right to the tomb.

But not all Christians are equal -the Egyptians and Ethiopians, for instance, who live among the ruins of a Crusader refectory, have less money, and therefore less access than the Europeans. The story of how things became so complicated is a fascinating one that Clark tells extremely well. From the pilgrimage of the Byzantine Empress Helena in 326AD to the less devout visitations of the Crusaders, we are treated to the long story of Christian devotion and powerplay in the Holy Land.

Around this history, Clark wraps stories from her own time in Jerusalem, and makes good use of the opportunities they present.
Through the concerns of Rahme, a Pales- tinian Christian who lives with her in a former Orthodox Old City monastery, she introduces landgrabs, roadblocks, suicide bombers, the siege in Beth- lehem’s Church of the Nativity and other realities of the on- going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American-born settlers provide a different view; one of the leaders of the Armenian community yet another. All this is well observed and freshly written -so much so that it begins to look as though what Clark really wanted to write a book about was not the tomb and its holy fire, but her experiences in the city. Then, halfway through, she shifts again and introduces us to Christian Zionism, a theme of such weight that it could have made
– perhaps should have made -another book.

The story of Christian Zionism, of the Christian groups who are actively encouraging Jews to settle in the Holy Land/Israel, is both intriguing and frightening. It is intriguing because people who take the Bible literally in the 21st century need to be understood: like fundamentalist Islamist groups, they are a force to be reckoned with and we feel their influence even if we don’t see their hands at work.

And they are frightening because of their professed reason for wanting to strengthen the Jewish state (and, by the same token, ensuring there is never a Palestinian state): quoting biblical revelations, they believe that only when Jews hold all the land promised to their patriarchs will the so-called “end of days” come to pass and the messiah reappear. Their efforts at hastening the apocalypse seem to be paying off. As the vice president of Thy Kingdom Come Inc, in America, puts it: “Since the creation of Israel we have seen a truly remarkable speeding up of events that have been prophesised. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are getting close to the end.”

By her end, Clark has abandoned the subtitle -The Battle for Christ’s Tomb -and describes the work as a “survey of the Christian world’s involvement” in the Holy Land. Herein lies the problem: she wants us to believe that the struggle over the tomb is a microcosm of the wider Christian struggle, but she fails to convince. The history of Christians in the Holy Land may be the key to understanding why the various sects are fighting over the tomb, but the reverse is not the case -the tomb is little more than a sideshow to Christians’
involvement in the region. At times this makes for a confusing read and leaves one wishing Clark had turned away from the holy fire and concentrated on writing a definitive history of Christian involvement in the Holy Land. She has the breadth of knowledge and the ability to see through the squabblepoison. And she recognises the motivation: at a time when western Christian governments are so active politically, economically and militarily in the region, it would have been a timely reminder of the difficulty western armies have had in keeping the peace in the Middle East. q Available at the Books First price of
£16 plus £2.25 p&p on 0870 165 8585

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