The politics -- ancient and modern -- that surround the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The other day, I pointed readers toward a piece of student journalism from the famed Columbia University School of Journalism -- a kind of a "Religion Beat: The Next Generation" nod. Click here to see that post: "Meet the Muslim Man Who Rents Crosses in Jerusalem."

Several readers asked if this was new territory for GetReligion, since we are not critiquing these pieces. In a way, it is new ground. However, readers should consider this part of our years of work trying to show newsroom managers that there are young journalists in the pipeline who want to cover this important beat.

The faculty member behind this project is the great religion-beat pro Ari L. Goldman, formerly of The New York Times, who serves as director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. With his cooperation, The Media Project website is running some student stories reported and written in Goldman's "Covering Religion" seminars -- with hands-on reporting work overseas.

This story by reporter/photographer Augusta Anthony is about one of the most famous and sacred sites in global Christianity. The headline: "Unity in the Divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre." The symbolic-detail lede:

JERUSALEM -- There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.
The “immovable ladder,” as its known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone -- no one knows who -- left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.
“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh.
Isidoris, with his bushy black beard, is the Greek Orthodox Superior of the Holy Sepulchre Church. He represents one of the three main denominations that claim ownership of the land. The others are the Catholic Church, represented by the Franciscan order, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are also three more groups that also claim rights of usage: the Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Now, if you've ever been to Holy Sepulchre, you have seen the delicate dance that takes place there as these ancient churches share the space. Sometimes, on holy days, you think it would help to have a sacred traffic cop on the scene to keep the liturgical processions from colliding. That kind of crash between the traditions would be bad.

But this story centers on the fact that a political issue in the public square has, for a moment, brought these churches together. As in:

... Recently the churches have put their differences aside in an effort to present a united front. In February, in a dramatic act of protest against the Israeli government’s tax plan, the various denominational leaders agreed to shutter the doors of the church, one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist sites. By bucking their usual trend of reluctant cooperation, the churches have sent a strong message to the Israeli government: We won’t have our affairs meddled in!
Church leaders perceived the Israelis as launching a two-pronged attack on their finances. First, a new tax policy to levy municipality taxes was proposed that would have incurred payments on commercial activities such as hotels and other businesses run by churches. Second, a new law would have allowed the government to expropriate church properties sold since 2010.
Jerusalem’s Christian community galvanized in opposition to the proposed changes and some see the proposed taxes as an existential threat. According to a Franciscan Friar who did not wish to be named (as his current role at the Holy Sepulchre prevents him from talking to press), the Church views the taxes as an encroachment on Christians in Jerusalem.

Any story that requires a Franciscan Friar to go off the record is going to be complicated.

Read it all. Oh, and note who controls the keys to this building.

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