Who holds the key to Christianity’s greatest shrine? Two Muslim families
Jerusalem - Millions of Christian pilgrims have flocked to Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre, venerated as the site where Jesus was buried and resurrected, but it is two Muslim Palestinian families who have been the formal caretakers of Christendom’s holiest site for more than 1,300 years.
The families said they were given the key and asked to care for the church by Muslim leaders after disputes between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics blocked an arrangement at the site.
Coexistence between Muslims and Christians throughout history is what makes Jerusalem special to many in a region ripped by sectarian and ethnic strife and the violence of jihadist militants.
Umar bin al-Khattab, Islam’s second caliph, captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine empire in 637 and granted safety to Christians in the city, including their property and churches, in what became known as the “treaty of Umar”.
When the caliph toured Jerusalem with Byzantine representative Patriarch Sophronious, he was offered the opportunity to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Tradition has it the caliph refused, saying if he prayed there, Muslims would take it as an excuse to turn the church into a mosque, depriving Christendom of one of its holiest sites. The Muslim caretaker families are the Nuseibehs and the Joudehs. The church caretakers for at least three decades have been Adeeb Jawad Joudeh, 53, and Wajeeh Nuseibeh, 66. Their families have lived in Jerusalem for centuries. Members of both families are successful professionals, wealthy businessmen and renowned scholars.
Before sunrise every day, Joudeh takes the church’s centuries-old cast iron key his family has safeguarded and meets Nuseibeh at the church door to perform the same ritual. Nuseibeh uses the iron key, which is 30 centimetres long, with a triangular metal handle and a square end to unlock the door.
A monk from one of the Christian denominations residing in the church helps open the ancient wooden door from the inside.
The church is declared open at 4am and closes at 8pm, when a similar ritual is performed.
Muslims have been entrusted with the key since 1187, primarily because of disputes between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics on who should keep it. The differences threatened to keep the church and its shrine closed, according to the Muslim clergy, church officials and records.
The dispute still exists and encompasses many aspects of life shared by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics residing in the church.
Church officials joke in private on the extent of disagreements between the Orthodox and the Catholics, which were manifested by a wooden ladder placed on the church’s back wall by a worker, who fixed a window on the second floor in 1757, but forgot to remove it. Under papal instructions not to take it away, the “immovable ladder” remained where it was to become a feature of the shrine.
Joudeh said his family inherited the key from an ancestor in 1187, who was entrusted with the task by Muslim commander Saladin, who forced the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem to surrender to his forces. A Sunni Muslim of Kurdish origin, Saladin was the sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.
Nuseibeh, however, said his family had the “prestigious privilege” to protect the key well before the Joudehs — since 637. He said it was given to one of his ancestors by the Muslim caliph at the time.
“The Nuseibeh family considers the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as its home,” Nuseibeh said.
Jamal Khader, a Roman Catholic priest who is the dean of College of Arts at Bethlehem University, said the two Muslim families were entrusted with the church as a “symbol of Muslim-Christian coexistence”.
“Usually, the owner of a house is the one who holds its key,” he said, insisting that allowing the key to remain with Muslims was initially because of Christian conflict but later developed into a feeling of trust.
“There’s no need to change the status quo because it works perfectly well,” Khader said.