• FEATURES \ Apr 18, 2001
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    Churches renew Easter rivalry in Jerusalem
Churches renew Easter rivalry in Jerusalem
Flak-jacketed police and Israeli troops almost outnumbered worshippers in the Old City of Jerusalem as depleted ranks of Christian pilgrims marked the first Good Friday since the start of the Palestinian uprising.

The foreign visitors who each year tread the Via Dolorosa, following the route of Christ's ascent to Calvary, were largely absent, deterred by violence that has included recent clashes between stone-throwers and security forces within a few metres of the Christian holy sites. Shopkeepers in the narrow streets around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre said it was the quietest Easter for visitors since 1967, the year Israel wrested the Old City from Jordanian rule.

Unusually this year, the dates of the western and eastern Easters coincide and, for once, Catholics and Protestants mingled with Russian and Greek Orthodox, Copts, Armenians and Ethiopians at the 14 stations of the cross that lead to the Holy Sepulchre.

Despite the declining numbers of Christians in Jerusalem - some estimates put the number at fewer than 10,000 - the 17 churches represented here continue to exert a powerful influence on the politics of the city. They own much of the property and regard that property as inalienable.

The churches jealously guard their rights against each other and against Muslim and Jewish incursions. Ancient rivalries that date back to the Crusades and beyond have been exacerbated since 1967 by rising nationalism among the Palestinian laity, running up against expatriate priesthoods sometimes suspected of being pro-Israeli.

These tensions have led to violence at Easter and to pitched battles in the Holy Sepulchre, a Crusader warren of rival chapels and presbyteries centred on the tomb of Christ. As recently as 1998 Armenians fought with Syrian Orthodox Christians armed with metal bars, knives and stones over the right of yet a third denomination to display religious joy on Easter Saturday.

This right to exuberance on the holy day is confined to the Greek Orthodox under a complex division of rights known as the Status Quo, imposed by the Ottoman authorities in the 19th century to try to establish inter-Christian peace.

The Armenians do not expect any trouble, having taken to placing a guard of muscular, crew-cut monks from former Soviet Armenia at the head of their ranks as they observe the ceremony of the holy fire when the darkened church is steadily flooded with light from thousands of candles.

If the Old City, with its Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters, is a microcosm of the ethnic divisions in the region, then the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a yet smaller microcosm. Possession is everything and the Greek, Armenian, Franciscan and Coptic monks who control the body of the church aggressively swing their censers to mark their passage through the church according to a strict timetable.

While Greeks, Catholics and Armenians take it in turns to worship at Christ's tomb, nearby at the rear of the sepulchre the Copts invite pilgrims to touch the stone where His head is said to have lain. Since failing to pay their Ottoman taxes in the 19th century, the Ethiopians have been exiled to a monastery on the roof alongside yet another Coptic stronghold.

The Israeli authorities have frequently been accused of exploiting this hornet's nest of Christian conflict for political ends. The Egyptian Copts claimed that the government allowed the Ethiopians to extend their control of the roof by taking over a passageway between two chapels in a dispute that was inconclusively referred to the Israeli supreme court.

On Sunday, before the Latin Patriarch enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate Easter Sunday Mass, its huge double doors will as always be opened by a Muslim porter. The key has been held by the same Muslim family for generations, since the Christians decided none of their co-religionists could be trusted with the task.