Muslims (literally) hold key to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Nuseibeh family

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Jerusalem’s most famous
Christian church, shared by three denominations, is unlocked each morning by a

Since the seventh century, the family of
Wajeeh Nuseibeh, 69, has handed down the responsibility of opening the door of
the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

“If the key would be in the hands of
the Greek Orthodox, then that would signify they are the owners of the church.
If it is the hands of the Catholics, then it would be a Catholic Church, the
same with the Armenians (Orthodox)” Nuseibeh told Catholic News Service in
a 1999 interview. “So Muslims are neutral people to open and close the

Nuseibeh was the one to officially close the
doors of the church Feb. 25 as the heads of churches announced its indefinite
closure to protest for Israeli measures they described as a “systematic
campaign … against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land.”
He said he felt very saddened by the turn of the events.

“I am very sad pilgrims are coming from
distances to come here … they come to visit the church and are not able to
see it because of a mistake made by the mayor” of Jerusalem to charge property
taxes on church-owned property, he said. “Only if pilgrims stop coming
will he stop with the issues of taxes. There will be more problems until this
is solved with the municipality. I get my orders from the Greek Orthodox, the
Armenian and the Catholic. Not from the government.”

Since the time of the Turkish rule in
Jerusalem, another Muslim family, the Joudehs, has been responsible for holding
the key. The Joudeh and Nuseibeh families employ another Muslim man to open the
doors early most mornings.

Nuseibeh arrives to take his post at 9 a.m.
and spends most of his day near the entrance of the church.

As a child, Nuseibeh used to visit the
church with his father, Jacob. Wajeeh Nuseibeh took over his father’s position
when he died in 1986. His father had held the position since 1967, when he
replaced his cousin.

In a place like the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher, where the 1885 Status Quo agreement is guarded by all the Christian
groups in the church, this responsibility is no small matter, and the
centuries-old traditions are taken very seriously.

“If he didn’t open the door, it would
stay shut,” the late Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a professor
of the New Testament at L’Ecole Biblique, told Catholic News Service in 1999. “It
is crucial to the maintenance of the whole Status Quo. If things were to
change, then all the elements of the agreement would be up for grabs, and I don’t
think any of the churches would be interested in that.”

During most of the year, Nuseibeh’s job
consists of keeping track of when and how to open the door, depending on which
group is having a religious procession and what time it is. Every afternoon at
4 p.m., he shuts the door halfway to signal the beginning of the Franciscan
procession and to keep people from entering or leaving to prevent disruption of
the event.

“My father showed me everything, what
to do and what is the right way to do it. He wrote down notes and explained it
to me,” said Nuseibeh.

The February protest closure was only the
second time the doors have been shut off schedule, said Nuseibeh. Twenty years
ago, the church was closed because of a disturbance caused by a visitor to the
church, he said.

Every inch of the church is so carefully
watched over by the different denominations that even the ladder used to reach
the window in front of the door’s padlock is under contention. Sometimes it is
symbolically in the possession of the Armenian Orthodox, or the Greek Orthodox
or the Catholics. It is Nuseibeh’s responsibility to pound the heavy door
knocker on the ancient doors, signifying the figurative changing of ownership
of the ladder.

The busiest time of the year for Nuseibeh is
during Holy Week. During that week, Nuseibeh gets the key from the Joudeh
family, a representative of whom is also present during Holy Week, and opens
the door at 4 a.m.

Traditionally on a day when all three
denominations have a holy day, representatives of the Greek, Armenian and
Catholic churches unbolt the door from inside, then pass the ladder outside the
trap-door window, where it is received and placed upon the door. Nuseibeh then
climbs the ladder, a representative of the Joudeh family gives him the key, and
he opens the lock. A bell inside is rung to announce the opening, and the three
representatives open the inside lock and, at the signal, pull the handle
together. Finally, they all go outside to take the ladder inside.

On Holy Thursday, the key is temporarily given
to the vicar of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. That afternoon he is
the one who hands the key to Nuseibeh to open the door, then it is once again
returned to the Joudeh family.

On Good Friday, said Nuseibeh, the key is
given to the Greek Orthodox in a similar fashion. The same ritual is followed
for the Holy Fire ceremony for the Armenian Orthodox. Nuseibeh also plays a
role in this traditional ceremony and is a witness to the sealing of the tomb
of Jesus.

Discussions about opening a new emergency
door to the church have never been completed, although the three denominations
have agreed on a location.

“If there were to be a second door, who
would be in charge of the key?” asked Father Murphy-O’Connor almost two
decades ago. “If there is an emergency, who would have the key? It’s very
complex when you start thinking of the details.”

The question remains unanswered.

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Follow Sudilovsky on Twitter: @jsudireports.

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