It’s time for Christian leaders in Jerusalem to get over their petty rivalries and address a safety issue at Christianity’s most holy site – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
To put it bluntly, the building is a disaster just waiting to happen. It’s a death trap that could entomb dozens — if not hundreds — of faithful Christians in the event of an emergency. There is only one way to get in and out of the building and should, God forbid, a fire break out in the church, hundreds of people could die either through suffocation or from being trampled in a frantic effort to escape.
Pilgrims who are able to escape the building to flee a disaster inside the church will still have to get through the two narrow exits at both sides of the courtyard, which the AP reported in 2011, cannot be reached by ambulances. Even on days with few visitors to the Sepulcher, the entrances to the courtyard can become clogged with pilgrims.
The problem is an open secret. Every one knows about it. Several hundred people were killed from suffocation and trampling when a fire broke out in the building in the 19th century. It is a miracle that disaster has not struck in the years since.
What’s the hold up?
The leaders of the various Christian sects who operate in the building are too filled with rivalry and distrust to install a second entrance. They simply cannot come to an agreement on where to install an emergency exit. Israel officials have tried to address the problem but to no avail. The issue was too “volatile” one Christian leader said in 2011.
At the root is a fight over space. The various Christian churches that worship in the building simply do not want to give up the territory they control within the structure to install second exit.
There was a proposal to install an emergency exit near the public bathrooms at the north of the building, but the exit would feed out into Coptic and Ethiopian monasteries, raising objections in those communities. In 1999, an official from the Ethiopian church which worships at the Holy Sepulcher acknowledged the need for an emergency exit but said not through his community’s monastery. "We have a right to oppose this exit,” Father Gabre Sallassie, a spokesman for the Ethiopian church declared at the time.
Such irresponsible intransigence from religious leaders at the Holy Sepulcher should come as no surprise. Priests and monks who worship inside the church have brawled with one another to protect their turf and at times, Israeli police have had to intervene to stop the fights.
It’s a disgrace. It is a disgrace that rivalry and distrust on the part of Christian shepherds puts their flocks at risk, but that’s what’s happening.
What is even more disgraceful is that some Christian leaders use Israeli efforts to protect pilgrims who visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as a pretext to attack Israel. Anyone who pays the least bit of attention to events at the church holds their breath during Christmas and Easter seasons when thousands of Christians from all over the world come to worship at the Holy Sepulcher.
Israelis impose stiff crowd control measures to make sure disaster does not strike and in response, irresponsible Palestinian Christian leaders condemn the Jewish state of depriving Christians of their right to worship freely at their holy sites.
One notorious practitioner of this strategy is Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, which these days is reportedly headquartered in the St. Anne Monastery near Lion’s Gate. Periodically, Daher whose work is supported by the World Council of Churches — a prominent supporter of anti-Zionist activism and theologizing — complains to Catholic news outlets about oppressive Israeli practices.
In relaying complaints about Israeli security measures at the Holy Sepulcher, Christian news outlets bury the important story – Christianity’s most holy site is a potential death trap and Christian leaders have sinfully failed to address the problem. (Yes, sin is the right word to describe how these religious leaders are behaving.)
As an aside, it would seem logical that the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher — a Catholic organization that provides financial support to Catholics in the Holy Land — would take up the cause of safety at the church from which it draws its name, but no dice. Sadly some — but not all — folks in that organization are more intent on turning the order into a front of anti-Israel propaganda than they are addressing problems at Christianity’s holiest site.
The situation puts Israeli officials in a bind. If they act over the objections of the Christian communities at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, they risk arousing protests and complaints from Christians from all over the world. So-called peace and justice activists will depict unilateral action on the part of the Israeli government as just another instance of Jewish oppression of Christians in the Holy City — a repeat of the Passion Play. You can see the cartoons now.
But if Israeli officials do nothing, they will be blamed for any tragedy that results from the lack of an exit. The same Christians who condemn Israel for the crowd control measures it currently imposes during Christian holidays will scream bloody murder and blame Israel for these deaths. It’s a win-win for the folks who have turned Jerusalem into the world headquarters for anti-Israel activism, right under the noses of their Israeli neighbors.
This is where we are: Christians have allowed their most holy site in all of Christendom to remain a death trap. When officials from Israel try to intervene and solve the problem, they refuse to cooperate because of petty rivalries. And when Israel takes intermediate measures to protect the lives of pilgrims who visit the church during Christian holidays, so-called peace and justice activists in the Christian community portray it as an act of oppression.
The whole mess is a metaphor. Prominent Christians who should know better spend more energy beating up on Israel than they do taking responsibility for the safety of their flocks.
Where have we seen that before?
The upshots are that a second exit needs to be built — now — and that Christian intransigence is the primary obstacle to its construction. It’s time for Christian leaders in Jerusalem to grow up, step up, and get busy building an emergency exit in the church they govern. Any pastor would do the same. Why not the holy men of Jerusalem?
It is also time for Christian and secular news outlets to inform their readers about the problem and to agitate on behalf of the pilgrims who visit the church.
Peoples’ lives are at stake.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.