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Monday, November 24, 2014

What does status quo stand for?

statu quoHOLY LAND – If the Holy Sepulchre more often than not leaves the pilgrim bewildered on his first visit, the regulations governing the site turn the place into a restricted zone. A return glance on the Statu quo which governs the Holy Sepulchre and the more important Holy Places of the Holy Land. A static text which is immortalized by the famous ladder, reclining  against the façade of the holiest shrine in Christianity.
A unique status quo governs since almost 150 years the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Nativity, the Edicule of the Ascension and the Church of the Virgin’s Tomb. This status quo is defined by “firmans (decrees under Ottoman Empire) of 1852 and 1853 aimed at putting an end to quarrels between the Christian communities for the ownership of the Holy Places. Regulating the territorial distribution  and the processions, the text provoked subjects of disagreement. 150 years later, it gave a boost, followed by international media, to the famous quarrels respectively in 2002 (a chair moved into the shade during a day of hot weather. Result: 11 wounded admitted to hospital) and of 2008 (police intervention to break apart protagonists following the discovery of a door left open during a procession). What does Status Quo seem to be ?

A brief history
In the aftermath of Islamic conquests, Christian communities lived side by side for centuries long, despite sharp differences in dogmas, rite and language.
A decision taken by Salahiddin in 1187 AD, entrusted a Moslem family key-holder and another Moslem family as guardians of the gates of the Holy Sepulchre. Consequently no Christian community does any longer own this Holy Place and Salahiddin is therefore in control of the entrance of the Place, exacting a considerable entrance fee (tax).
Ever since 1335, Franciscans in the Holy Land managed to acquire substantial properties in the Holy Places. Considering the involvement of Western powers in the conflict with the Ottoman Empire in 1622, the Holy Places become a bargaining chip all along the XVIIth and XVIIIthcenturies for ambassadors of Western powers with the Ottoman Empire, Greek orthodox being their subjects. Holy Places became
During the XIXth century, the Ottoman Sultan corroborated the status quo by two “firmans”, regulating the quarrel for ownership of Holy Places. Until this day, this status quo is the term of reference to settle matters relating to the running of these Places, as from the simple lantern until the procession passing through wide-scale restoration works (as is the case with the Basilica of the Nativity at present).

A well-defined but hard-to-find regulationst sepulcre2 565x489
Each step, of each rite, is now settled, but no official text was drafted at the time of the Ottoman decision-making, attention is therefore shifted to private notes. Tradition did the rest of the work, and matters are nowadays engraved in stone. It is the addition of different Church regulations which make a case-law. However, status quo does not interfere in liturgies, only in the running of rituals.
The Holy Sepulchre is mastered by three Churches living inside: the Greek Orthodox, who occupy the lion’s share of the building, the Latins, represented by the Franciscans,  and the Armenians. Later there came, with the blessing of the three, the Ethiopian Orthodox, who live on the roof of Chapel St Helena, and Copts and Assyrians who each hold a chapel.
Coming back to the doors: the regulation states that only one of the three residing communities may ask to have the Basilica opened. Call is made to the Moslem door-keeper family, who will call for the other family to get the keys, and then the doors are opened. For cleaning, the courtyard of the Basilica is swept by the Greeks who look after its cleanliness. The Latins clean up the steps that lead up to the Chapel of the Franks (at the right side of the entrance) and the tiles of the courtyard that are closer to the steps. Another example: the Stone of Unction is kept clean by the three communities, one after the other. Eight oil lamps are hanging: four belong to the Greeks, two to the Armenians, one to the Latins and one to the Copts. In the Angel’s Chapel, the two steps on the right are to be used exclusively by Latins, those on the left reserved to Greeks and to Armenians. That is the case with each square centimeter.
For any change, the agreement of the three residing communities is essential. Decorations and equipment are expressions of ownership of the place. As regards the most famous ladder, which adorns the facade since firman days, it is still there until this day, since no one is eager to take the challenge of removing it, at the risk of starting stormy confrontations with neighbours who might see thereby a seizure of the place. It has therefore become the material incarnation of the status quo. Nevertheless there are decisions which show that the rigidity of the status quo is to be relativised: the communities have succeeded to come to agreement for restoration works on the roofs of the Basilica some years ago.
Behind these stiff positions, there is however a way to safeguard this unique place and to save it from sudden, old-time architectural effects. For Father Stephane, guardian of St Saviour’s, “the status quo appears at first view like an “iron collar” which puts in evidence the divisions of the church ; but regulations are necessary for the purposes of all churches. It is a ecumenical place which, for me, does not symbolize rift but maintains round the same Resurrection, the same Faith, the universality of Church”. There, in succeeding to pray in the midst of more often noisy crowds, the visitor or the faithful may experience the same feeling as the Crusader pilgrim of the XIIth century and see for himself the same realities as Chateaubriand in the XIXthcentury. Therefore would the status quo be the guarantor of Intemporality of Christian Church inside these Places ?
Within theme of a forthcoming second part, the article will tackle more spiritual aspects, as by-products of this status quo.

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