• December 20, 2005
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    Church of the Nativity needs a miracle
Church of the Nativity needs a miracle Large holes in the 500-year-old lead roof have let rainwater flood inside for years. It streams down the walls and threatens to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics.

A botched repair by the Greeks, in which the roof was given a waterproof lining, has created new problems as condensation now eats into the plaster and rots wooden beams.

The most authoritative survey for decades found that the wood was so badly damaged that a large truss was only being prevented from crashing to the floor by friction.

But while the three communities accept that repairs are needed, mutual suspicion means they cannot agree on how to carry them out.

The impasse means that each year the winter rains destroy more of the church's once magnificent interior.

Fr Michele Piccirillo, a Catholic priest and archaeological expert, said: "The Church of The Nativity should be a symbol of what we are as Christians, not a symbol of disunity and disagreement. The condition of the roof is unbelievably bad and it must be settled not just for the benefit of the church but for all Christianity.'' The church is venerated as one of the oldest continuously used Christian places of worship, surviving earthquakes, floods and military occupations.

The first basilica around the grotto marking Christ's birthplace was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine the Great. The existing structure dates largely from a 6th century reconstruction by Emperor Justinian.

Most Christian buildings in the Holy Land were sacked by the Persians in about 620 but the Church of the Nativity was spared because The Three Wise Men on an external mosaic were believed to come from Persia.

Schisms led to shared custodianship between the three Christian communities. Visitors today see Franciscans in cassocks walking past cowled Armenian monks through clouds of Greek incense.

The Armenians and Franciscans each claim ownership of a third of the church but the Orthodox Greeks disagree, saying that as descendants of the Byzantine founders they should enjoy majority rights.

According to a 1852 Ottoman diktat all three communities must be given a key to the lock on the front door of the church.

Three years ago the Greeks angered the others when they changed the lock one night under cover of darkness. They argued that the diktat grants the others keys but not the right to use them.

Roof repairs have little hope of going ahead while such disagreements remain.

In the 1990s the three communities agreed that German experts should carry out a survey of the building but the Franciscans were never given a copy of its findings.

Spokesmen for all three communities admit that the roof is in a deplorable state but talks on the issue have broken down, angering archaeologists and historians.

Rupert Chapman, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, said: "The Basilica of The Nativity is one of the jewels of Byzantine architecture and therefore one of the greatest treasures of world heritage. These considerations should transcend any questions of ownership and local disputes.''

Rows between the three communities have maddened outsiders before. After the British conquered Palestine in 1917, an army officer found that the Greeks had built an ugly wall in front of the basilica's main icon screen.

The officer, Ronald Storrs, discovered that the three communities all agreed the wall should be taken down but not on who should pay for its removal. "I was allowed the honour of effecting the payment myself,'' he later wrote

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