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4509Church of the Nativity needs a miracle

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Dec 9, 2005

      Church of the Nativity needs a miracle
      By Tim Butcher in Bethlehem
      (Filed: 10/12/2005)

      If pilgrims worshipping in the Church of the Nativity look up at the roof,
      they will see a battlefield threatening the future of one of Christendom's
      most holy sites.

      Squabbling over crucial roof repairs between the three Christian
      communities who share custodianship of Jesus's birthplace is endangering
      the 1,500-year-old basilica.

      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

      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

      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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