Who holds the key to Christianity’s greatest shrine? Two Muslim families

Sunday 17/04/2016
Adeeb Joudeh, 53, poses for a photo holding an ancient iron key, which opens the main door to Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre.

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.