Historic agreement reached to renovate the reputed tomb of Jesus

by Sarah Schweinsberg
Posted 6/08/16, 11:38 am

For the first time in more than 200 years, renovations began Monday on what is traditionally believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ.

The site has not been touched since 1810 due to the rivalry among the site’s guardians: the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches.

The contentions between the groups are almost as ancient as the tomb itself, said Seth Schwartz, associate director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University.

“The reason [the disagreements] seem strange is that Protestants have never been a part of this competition,” he said, but Protestants could compare the rivalries to the differences between church denominations.

The tomb sits within the Church of the Sepulchre, constructed in A.D. 325 by the Emperor Constantine in what is now the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. With its stone staircases, gilded ornamentation, and many dark chambers, the church is one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, even though historians and archeologists do not believe it is the actual place Jesus was buried. 

The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches maintain separate sections of the site. Tensions sometimes arise between the clergymen who work and pray at the church together. In 2008, arguments between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks turned into a brawl. 

The building has needed renovations for years but as Schwartz explained, all parties must agree to any changes at the site. 

“Anytime anyone makes a move towards changing the status quo, the rivalries are going to come out,” he said. “Nobody is allowed to alter the status quo without the permission of all the parties involved.” 

But the church building has become so decrepit that Israel’s Antiquities Authority labeled the structure unsafe last year, pressuring the differing Christian denominations to agree on the renovations and raise the 3 million euros needed to complete the project. 

“We equally decided the required renovation was necessary to be done, so we agreed upon it,” the Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, the top Armenian official at the church, said. 

The tomb is stable but needs urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors like humidity. The renovations are expected to take eight to 12 months, during which time religious pilgrims will be able to continue visiting the site.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah is a reporter for WORLD Radio.

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