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Sunday, December 30, 2007

BATTLE OF THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY

I guess it is a primeval struggle destined to continue until judgment day, whenever the hell that will be. The day after Christmas 2007 two rival gangs got into a dispute over turf and started to rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests). They were battling inside the Church of the Nativity of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories, which was originally divided between them by an 1852 “firman” from Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World, because…well, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III was a pompous political hack, who believed that he was “entitled” to rule, chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world. In his rise to power Louis shamelessly played one political faction off another, abolished democracy, seized the throne, started the Crimean War, invaded Algeria and Vietnam (both of which came back to haunt France a century later) and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War which resulted in the humiliating defeat of France, the creation of Germany, his own over throw and death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century France.
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Louis Napoleon was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848, and he immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate liberal French voters. But the Catholic Church never likes to be lectured about liberal policies. In an attempt to placate now angry Catholic voters Louis suggested that since (five years earlier, in 1847) some scoundrel had stolen the Silver Star marking the site of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe” and control should be handed over to the Catholic Church for protection. Catholic voters thought this was a fine idea.
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And, oddly, so did Muslim Abdulmecit I, who controlled the Holy Land. The Sultan was looking for allies to back up his inevitable confrontation with Russia. But he didn’t want a start the fight prematurely by spitting in the Czar’s eye. So he invented a policy to make Louis happy and hopefully keep the Czar happy as well. His edict officially handing over the keys to the Church of the Nativity required the Vatican to maintain the church “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”, meaning the Catholics kept the keys but the Eastern Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic churches kept the building. And besides, they already had their own keys. It was the invention of the phrase “status quo”. And it is why, of the 15 lamps that illuminate the replacement silver star now imbedded in the church floor, six belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, five to the Armenian Apostolic church and four to the Romans.
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The only fly in the Sultan’s brilliant compromise was that protecting all Christian holy sites in the Ottoman Empire had been the responsibility of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including “the birth place of Jesus Christ…” as confirmed in 1516 by “Mohammed the Conqueror”. And the supreme authority of that church in 1852 was the pompous and dull Czar Nicholas I. All of his life Nicholas had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith. And he was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Nativity be returned and when they were not he declared war on Turkey. Britain and France had treaties with Turkey, and so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 Russian. But how did the Armenian Apostolic Church get involved in all of this?
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Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187, the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics who now made up a majority of Bethlehem’s population –since all Muslims had been forcefully expelled. The Ottomans tried to play the Christian sects against one another. And when the Romans complained that the Orthodox owned all the profitable tourist sites the Armenians were given their own keys to the Church, and control over part of the building.
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Now ultimately, “control” requires warm bodies on the ground, and traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their warm bodies from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men suddenly find themselves living in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives has prepared them for that. And it was these devout and unsophisticated young priest who fought the free-for- all in the church on December 26th.
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And the whole damn thing was Louis Napoleon’s fault. What a jackass.

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