Bethlehem Broom Brawl

Wednesday's broom fight between Greek and Armenian clergy at the Church of the Nativity has come as a god-send to the editors manning the desks of news rooms this Christmas. With the year-in-review pieces done and the boss away until Tuesday, the junior editors ruling the roost have been handed a fun item with which to play.

The general outline of the story as reported by the wire services was that fist fight erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic clergy at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A six century church built on the purported site of Christ's birth, the Church of the Nativity is jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church and the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church. Each has their own portion of the building under their administration, the newspapers report, with the turf jealously guarded against encroachment.

While cleaning the building following the Catholic Christmas services on Dec 25 in preparation for the Orthodox (Jan 7) and Armenian (Jan 6) Christmas services, the dividing line between territories was breached.  This led to a shoving, swinging of brooms and fisticuffs. Palestinian Authority Police, evidently prepared for just such an outbreak of violence, quickly broke up the fight -- which took place before a tourist group and was recorded on video. No injuries were reported or arrests made, the news services reported.

Several of the longer news pieces noted that brawls between rival churches over their rights and responsibilities at the Church of the Nativity had taken place for centuries. Last year the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a story about a dispute that led to tourists being trapped in the grotto under the church -- the traditional place of Jesus' birth -- a priest took a shortcut and trespassed on Armenian space.

In 2002 Palestinian terrorists damaged the building when they seized the building, holding a number of monks and nuns hostage.

The best report on the incident I've seen was in the Daily Mail. It provided the facts, context and an overview of what was behind the dispute.

The Sun has had the best -- meaning worst -- headline so far. "Affray in a Manger".  The New York Post comes a close second with "Brawl is mano amen-o" with the Mirror coming third with "Rival Monks in Broomstick Brawl in Bethlehem Church".

Not given the free hand of their tabloid brethren, many of the "quality" press turned to alliteration with some form of "Clerics Clash" (Reuters, The Independent, USA Today; "Clergymen  Clash" (CBS, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Time); or "Brawl in Bethlehem" (Irish Independent, BBC).

Other outlets mined phrases from popular culture for headlines: "Monks gone wild at the Church of the Nativity" Global Post, or "Bethlehem Rings in Christmas With Annual Priestly Broom Fight" in The Atlantic.

Commentary about the fight was all over the place. One European news agency (MINA) quipped:

Nothing says Christmas as the annual fight between Armenian and Greek priests in Bethlehem. Just like in previous years, both groups continued their tradition and fought over "territory" and who has the right to be at the church which in Christianity is believed was the birthplace of Jesus.

Both groups attempted to clean the Church, to signify the birth of Jesus when a scuffle erupted. Although the place was crawling with police, they still didn't manage to prevent the annual priest fight, which hopefully Spike TV will air later tonight.

This is perhaps what's wrong with priests in general, unlike shaolin monks who can actually fight. Our hats off to Greek and Armenian priests... true believers should always fight each other ... in Church.

The National Review and the Guardian drew very different lessons from the fracas (imagine that!)

David Pryce-Jones notes that:

Rivalry between Christians was one reason why the Holy Land of the Crusaders was lost to Islam. The bigotry remains as primitive and destructive as the Sunni–Shia divide is to Islam, and when there are no more Christians in any Muslim country it will be too late for regrets.

The fealty given by Christian Arabs to their Muslim rulers will do them no good, Pryce-Jones argues.

Bethlehem used to be at least three-quarters Christian, but that figure is down to about a quarter as its inhabitants emigrate to escape the PLO. Christmas is of course the high point of the town’s calendar. Victor Batarseh, the mayor, is a distinguished medical specialist, aged 76, and Roman Catholic.  He marked this Christmas with a speech calling for a complete boycott of Israel. This would be suicide. The day the Christians are at the exclusive mercy of the PLO, and never mind their Hamas compatriots, is when this church would become a mosque. An omen: Ayia Sofia, once the Byzantine cathedral of Istanbul, was converted into a mosque, then a museum, and under rising Islamism is now a mosque again.

Giles Fraser -- the Church of England clergyman whose invitation to the Occupy LSX movement led to the on-going mess at St Paul's Cathedral -- noted that the Nativity brawl was a sign for some people that the church had lost its way.

Church buildings have become a fetish, admired by secular aesthetes and those who want an impressive stage set in which to celebrate life's big events, but a drain on the resources and moral imagination of the church. What we need is another dose of healthy iconoclasm to remind us that the message of the gospel is not to be confused with bricks and mortar.

While he had sympathy with this view, he believed that:

Christianity is not some esoteric philosophy. It is rooted in time and place. It begins on the streets before it points to the stars. And church buildings are an expression of the rootedness of the incarnation. Where it all goes wrong is when those who are so caught up in the running of church buildings forget about the purpose for which the place was built, and come to believe that the stones matter in and of themselves. When that happens Christianity becomes petty and narrow, all about who cleans a few metres of floor, rather than a means of imagining human life from the context of all eternity.

A few news outlets managed to mangle the story. CNN appeared not to have read tmatt's recent post and referred to the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches as "sects". Wrong word, of course. tmatt explains why.

And the Washington Post has over egged the pudding.

At one of oldest churches in the world, built over the cave that tradition marks as the place Jesus was born, Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have brawled annually around Christmas Day for more than a century.

This year was no different.

This year was different in that they did brawl. They do not brawl every year.

They have, of course brawled frequently. Karl Marx, writing in the New York Herald-Tribune on 15 April 1854 took the churches to task for their unedifying conduct.

... the common worship of the Christians at the Holy Places resolves itself into a continuance of desperate Irish rows between the diverse sections of the faithful; [however] these sacred rows merely conceal a profane battle, not only of nations but of races ...

Marx did note the appointment of an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem was "the first and only cause of a union between all the religions at Jerusalem" who were united in their common dislike of the Church of England. Reading Israeli press  reports shows that little has changed.

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