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The Church of the Nativity in the Nineteenth Century

The Status Quo Arrangements and International Implications

By Nazmi Jubeh

The Ottomans exercised their authority as a sovereign state over the holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, issuing decrees that defined the different rights of the various Christian denominations. Some of these decrees reflected realities on the ground, others the empire’s changing political interests or the effectiveness of pressure groups that lobbied especially in Istanbul. Thus the rights of one denomination might be expanded at the expense of those of another. The Ottoman Empire’s weakness during the last two centuries of its reign played an important role in these arrangements, especially when concessions to Western powers began to erode the bones and structure of the state, gradually affecting also the holy sites.

Road to the Church of the Nativity, nineteenth century. Photo courtesy of Munir Alawi.

Due to its demographic percentage, the Greek Orthodox community occupied a prominent place in the empire’s calculations. Not only did the many Christians in Arab countries have to be taken into account, including Arabs, Syriacs, Copts, Chaldeans, Armenians, and more, but also those living in Turkey, Greece, and Eastern Europe. Tsarist Russia, as the largest Orthodox country, played a considerable role in this matter and acted as the protector of this community. Russia was a direct neighbor of the Ottoman Empire, and the relationship was marred by long-term wars and hostile relations. Furthermore, the empire’s alliances and changing interests were taken into account, such as when Istanbul, for example, in 1536 recognized France as the protector of the Catholics and granted additional privileges to Latin Catholics (Roman Catholics).

The restoration of churches was a major source of conflict among the various Christian denominations. Substantial repairs were impossible to carry out without permission from the Ottoman authorities, either the central administration or officials in the periphery, or even both. But such regulations should not be viewed as absolute, as the Ottoman state during this period was not a “state of law” in the contemporary sense. Bribery, administrative corruption, personal interests of local rulers, and the ability of this or that denomination to circumvent the law played a significant role. Concerns of internal peace and security should not be ignored either. Moreover, the churches’ so-called historical rights fluctuated continuously according to internal balance considerations and the empire’s changing international interests.

I tend to believe that permission was necessary in cases where the restoration required the import of materials from outside the Ottoman Empire or in the case of foreign funding for restoration work. But in cases of limited restoration and periodic maintenance work, the various Christian dignitaries did not need permission from the central authorities in Istanbul or even from local authorities. I reached this conclusion after reviewing dozens of documents, records, and sources. But such modes of operation could not be taken for granted, as sometimes even slight interferences in church matters needed permission. The philosophy that prompted the various Christian denominations to obtain restoration permits considered this act as serving to protect the historical rights and confirm church ownership of the party that made the request.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, c.1880-1900.

In the last two centuries of Ottoman rule, in light of its declining authority in all fields and the growth of internal and external forces, the idea of ​​reaching as much consensus as possible between the Christian denominations without the empire’s intervention encouraged them to resolve their differences and even agree on restoration in many cases. Such matters did not always succeed, but the efforts certainly contributed to limiting the Ottoman authority’s ability to intervene, and the denominations became better able to solve many of the problems related to the interpretation of historical rights, particularly when the empire issued rulings that outlined the various rights and responsibilities. But because these rulings were ambiguous in many instances, conflicts among the different denominations rendered them unable to prevent the occurrence of quasi-periodic clashes.

The Ottoman state did not invent all the laws that are related to the Church of the Nativity and other churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as some date back to Mamluk rule, and some problems resulted from the arrangements imposed by Saladin after his defeat of the Crusaders. During the Mamluk era, it was impossible to carry out restoration work in the Church of the Nativity without the permission of the sultan himself. For example, in 1480, permission was granted to restore the roof of the Church of the Nativity, and the restoration was implemented with the support of King Edward IV of England, Philip Duke of Burgundy, and the Doge of Venice, whereby the first provided lead, the second wooden beams, and the third secured transportation to Jaffa port and provided craftsmen and technicians.

A similar manner was adopted in 1842, when the Church of the Nativity remained severely damaged from an earthquake that had struck in 1834, and the Orthodox Patriarchate obtained permission to carry out the necessary restoration work. During these works, the marble wall panels were replaced with plaster, much of the roof timber was replaced, as were the lead sheets that covered the roof and the windows, while the remaining wall mosaics were protected, the bema and the surrounding areas in the northern and southern naves were covered with large marble tiles, and the church hall was paved with stone tiles that are still in use. These comprehensive works strengthened the Orthodox Patriarchate’s authority over the Church of the Nativity, rendering it the semi-absolute owner of the church. The Latins (Roman Catholics) retained only a share in the Cave of the Nativity.

Bethlehem late nineteenth century. Photo courtesy of Munir Alawi.

In 1847, the Latins reacted by adding to the Nativity site a silver star that bore a Latin text, which was considered a declaration of presence in the holiest spot in the Cave of the Nativity. The Greek Orthodox understood the symbolic meaning of the star and thus removed it. And since the Ottoman Empire was obliged to take the international dimensions of such a matter into consideration, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid I (r. 1839–1861 AD) placed an alternative star on his own account in 1852.

Obviously, decisions regarding the Christian holy places in Palestine were integral in the empire’s international conflicts, such as with Russia, France, Britain, Italy, Austria, and other countries. Thus, international intervention and French pressure prompted Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid I to make concessions in favor of the Latins. In particular, he was urged to restore the rights of restoration to how they had been in the eighteenth century, in other words to limit the growing authority of the Greek Orthodox, as embodied ostentatiously through the restorations of 1842. But the abdication in favor of the Latins infuriated Tsarist Russia, the patron of Orthodoxy.

The Status Quo is a set of regulations that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the various Christian denominations that have a presence in Palestine.

A clearer outline of the respective rights and responsibilities of the Christian denominations was in order. In 1757, a firman (decree) had been issued by the Ottoman Sultan Osman III to outline and divide the rights and duties in the various Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In 1852, after long efforts that entailed a field survey as well as internal and international consultations – including with the Franciscans, the Catholic community that since the twelfth century had held historical rights – Sultan Abdul Majid I issued a decree to confirm what has come to be known as the Status Quo arrangements, reiterating his decision in 1853. These arrangements were furthermore confirmed in the Treaty of Paris (1856), the Treaty of Berlin (1878, where the term Status Quo was officially mentioned for the first time), and the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

The 1852 firman affirmed Greek Orthodox domination over the most important Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But even though the sultan had consulted with the various denominations, his decree can be considered a form of fait accompli imposed on everyone. Thus, the majority of the affected church notables expressed their utter dissatisfaction, alleged its injustice, and protested the disregard of their historical rights. But they respected the decision because it put an end to bitter and embarrassing conflicts – well aware that the consequences of these conflicts had international repercussions. The great powers announced their recognition of these arrangements, deeming it a declaration of a truce rather than a final arrangement. They monitored its application and quibbled over its application, which led to the fabrication of problems around the smallest details.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Latin (Roman) Catholics share ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches perform minor rites as well.

The firman did not outline clearly enough the responsibilities, mechanisms, and financing of restorations. The various problems became evident when most of the holy sites began to deteriorate, suffering from a lack of maintenance, until some of them reached advanced stages of erosion. For example, in the Church of the Nativity, problems became clear when its ceiling, column paintings, and wall mosaic eroded and largely collapsed due to a lack of agreement among the denominations regarding restoration. Their conflict was exacerbated by an Ottoman law that stated that whoever owned a roof owns the entire building, which rendered the notables of the Latin and Armenian churches unlikely to allow the Greek Orthodox to repeat the restoration work, as carried out in 1842, even though the church had fallen into a dangerous state.

Other disputes the firman failed to solve related, for example, to the Cave of the Nativity, where the Greek Orthodox did not recognize the historical rights of the Latins. In 1869, a fire in the cave destroyed most of its furniture, especially the embroidered curtain that had covered a large part of the walls of the sacred cave. The fire’s cause and whether or not it was started intentionally remained unknown. But this situation turned into an international affair when negotiations were held between France and the Ottoman Empire over who had the right to replace the curtains. The solution was delayed because France was preoccupied with its war with Prussia (1870–1871). In 1872, the Greek Orthodox took advantage of France’s defeat in the war and hung their own curtain on the walls of the cave. France reiterated its agreement with the Ottoman Empire that France would finance a new curtain and asserted that the Greek Orthodox action was contrary to the rules of the Status Quo. The French curtain was put up in March 1873. A month later, it was snatched from its place and torn. France intervened again and agreed with the Ottomans to reinstate the Status Quo through a committee formed by the Ottomans. The committee fined the Greek Orthodox the cost of the torn curtain, paid the sum to the Latins, and a new curtain was hung. It depicts the story of Jesus’ birth with a Latin text and the emblems of the Franciscans, Terra Santa, and the Latin Cross of Jerusalem. The new curtain, made of fire-resistant asbestos, is still present in the Cave of the Nativity. The costs of the asbestos curtain were paid by French President Patrice de MacMahon (presided 1873–1879) from his own pocket, and the hanging of the curtain took place in 1874 in the presence of representatives of the Ottoman authority and the French consul. But this story would not have been laid to rest without huge sums paid by France and the Franciscans to senior officials of the Ottoman authority in Jerusalem. Such occasions do not end without the paying of bribes to “facilitate the implementation of the law,” a matter that was known and accepted as part of the existing system.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is under the supervision of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Latin (Roman) Catholic churches; the Coptic Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches perform minor rites as well.

In any case, even though the implementation of Status Quo arrangements is frequently marred by problems and disputes, they became international law when they were incorporated into several international treaties that were approved by international conferences. Notwithstanding the repeated violations and ongoing quarrels that the Church of the Nativity witnessed until the end of the Ottoman period, and regardless of who was satisfied with the Status Quo arrangements, who refused them, and who expressed reservations, they regulate the relationship among the denominations and their rights and obligations with regards to the Church of the Nativity to this day.

  • Dr. Nazmi Jubeh is the director of Birzeit University Museum. He is also a member of the Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of the Nativity. Dr. Jubeh has authored a number of books in addition to many articles on Jerusalem, Hebron, and the holy sites and cultural heritage in Palestine.

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