Trouble in a holy place; Jerusalem: The lone doorway to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher poses a hazard, but officials are quarreling over an appropriate solution.


JERUSALEM -- The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial, befits this relic of the Crusader age. Massive wooden doors are opened at dawn by a Muslim caretaker whose family, legend holds, has held the keys since the 12th century, when Saladin drove out the crusaders.

Pilgrims, missionaries and kings have crossed through that entrance to pray in what many consider the holiest site in Christendom. But when Uri Mor, the Israeli liaison to the Christian community, looks at that doorway, he sees a disaster waiting to happen.

The entrance, at the Holy Sepulcher's south end, is the only way in and out of the church. With millions of Christian pilgrims expected next year to celebrate the millennium, Israeli officials want an emergency exit opened somewhere in the church, which is inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

"What will happen if there is a fire?" asked Mor, who works for the government's Religious Affairs Ministry. "During Greek Easter, there are about 17,000 people gathering in the church. It takes them three to 3 1/2 hours to evacuate through this door peacefully."

A fire in the church in the mid-19th century killed 500 worshipers, who either suffocated or were trampled, according to pilgrim accounts.

The present church, built by the Crusaders on an ancient Christian site, has at least 10 doors that have been sealed, barricaded or built over in the past century. But the problem exceeds finding an appropriate means of egress, church representatives say.

Over the decades, the Holy Sepulcher has been surrounded by other buildings that one biblical scholar likened to "barnacles." An Ethiopian monastery and a Muslim mosque are adjacent to portions of the church; a new exit could encroach upon them.

Then there is the matter of persuading the three Christian groups that control the church -- the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and the Armenians -- to agree on an exit. The Ethiopian Christians, the Copts and Syrians also occupy parts of the church.

Mor, the Israeli government liaison, said he has been discussing the emergency exit with the churches for four years.

"The timetable of the churches is not of the computer world," he said. "It took 30 years [for them] to decide the color and design of the new [covering of the] dome. It took them 30 years to debate and discuss, to fight and quarrel over who will finance it. I told them we don't have time to wait 30 years."

The debate over the emergency exit is the most recent example of the long-standing rivalry among the Christian occupants of the shrine. "A jealous possessiveness" is how biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor characterized their relationship to the holy site.

The six groups "watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights," Murphy-O'Connor writes in his book "The Holy Land."

The control of the labyrinthine Crusader church is unique. Quadrants and chapels within the church belong to the different groups, with each responsible for their care and maintenance. Common areas -- including the presumed burial place of Jesus -- are shared by the three primary tenants.

"When you enter the Holy Sepulcher, you don't see marked boundaries. The boundaries are invisible," said an Armenian church official who refused to be quoted by name. "But sometimes arguments arise over where the boundaries are for each community."

A dispute between France and Russia in 1852 over access to the holy places led to the Crimean War in 1853.

The complicated ownership agreements, referred to as "the status quo," date from the Berlin Congress of 1878, when Jerusalem was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. During the British mandate period, before the founding of Israel in 1948, the agreements were put in writing.

Neither Jordan, which lost control of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, nor Israel, have tried to change the arrangement. Both were responsible for ensuring that the status quo was implemented.

Then there is the matter of the keys to the church. Neither of the Christian groups has possession of the keys. A Muslim family, the Joudehs, was entrusted with the keys by Saladin when he conquered the Crusaders in 1187, said Abdul Khader Joudeh, 68, a member of the family. Members of a second Muslim family, the Nusseibehs, are the doorkeepers, he said. The Nusseibehs say they held the keys before 1187.

Mor, the Israeli government liaison, said meetings with the main occupants of the church over the past nine months have resulted in a consensus over the need for an emergency exit. But saying and doing is another matter, he added.

"We have been struggling over this for seven to eight months," said the representative from the Armenian church. "It is not only within our means to resolve."

The Armenian official noted one proposal to locate the emergency exit in the area of the northern wall of the church, near the public restrooms. The exit, with a corridor, would lead to a Coptic monastery and an Ethiopian monastery.

"The emergency exit is necessary. But not through our monastery," said Father Gabre Sallassie, a spokesman for the Ethiopian church. "We have a right to oppose this exit."

The Franciscan order is the custodian of the Latin Catholic sector of the Holy Sepulcher. Father Claudio Baratto, a spokesman for the Franciscans, favors the bathroom exit proposal.

"I think it's the only way," said the 80-year-old cleric, standing in a tiny, enclosed courtyard where the public restrooms are. "The difficulty, every time, is from the Greek Orthodox. They don't want to change. For them it's enough as they are."

Metropolitan Timothy, the official of the Greek Orthodox church who has participated in the meetings on the emergency exit, declined to be interviewed.

"Metropolitan Timothy is not going to be available to give a statement at this time. The discussion has not been concluded. The participants are not finished. Therefore they have not reached a detailed resolution," a spokesman for the cleric said.

If a solution can't be found, Israeli police could limit the number of visitors to the church. But Mor worries that the government might then be accused of restricting access to holy places in the Old City.

"Before the year 3000, I'm sure it will be resolved," he quipped.

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