Religion in the News
Jerusalem Monks Trade Blows on Church Rooftop
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- The rooftop compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre bore scars of conflict on Monday after Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian monks traded blows over a chair at the traditional site of the crucifixion of Jesus.
About 11 monks were taken to hospital after clerics from the rival sects that jealously share the courtyard on the roof of the Jerusalem shrine threw rocks, metal rods and chairs at each other in the latest chapter of a centuries-old dispute.
For the six Christian sects that jealously guard their rights at the church, enshrined in a 1757 Ottoman "status quo" law, the movement several weeks ago by one denomination of a chair into a spot claimed by another was a declaration of war.
"They are trying to force us out," said an Ethiopian monk, who declined to give his name, about the rival Egyptian Coptic sect, one of whose elderly monks crossed boundaries by moving a chair into the shade at the third century Byzantine church.
The Ethiopians and Egyptian Copts have been warring for more than a century over the roof of the shrine which the Ethiopians call the House of Sultan Solomon because they believe the biblical King Solomon gave it as a gift to the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopians lost control of the roof during an epidemic in the 19th century which enabled the Copts to take over.
But in 1970, during a brief absence by Coptic priests from a rooftop chapel, the Ethiopian clerics returned and have been squatting there ever since.
An Ethiopian monk huddles in the corner of the chapel day and night to guard the squatters' claim.
The Egyptian monk, who has been living with them on the roof since the 1970 takeover to assert the Copts' rights, decided to move his chair out of the sun during a hot Jerusalem day.
"They (the Ethiopians) teased him," said Father Afrayim, an Egyptian Coptic monk at the next door Coptic monastery. "They poked him and brought some women who came behind him and pinched him," he said. Each side accuses the other of throwing the first blow in the fist-fight and stone throwing that ensued. Police eventually broke up the brawl but by all accounts many of the protagonists were already wounded.
TENSION MOUNTING ON CHRISTIAN SHRINE
At least seven Ethiopian clerics and four Egyptians were hurt in the fracas. The Ethiopians say one monk is still unconscious in hospital and the Egyptian Copts say one of their clerics sustained a broken arm.
Tempers flared a day later on the rooftop which was littered with the remnants of the battle -- rocks and pieces of broken chairs.
One Egyptian monk shouted out catcalls to an Ethiopian cleric and then moved his hand across his throat in a brutal slashing gesture.
"They want to kill us. They don't want us to live here," the Ethiopian monk said in a voice laced with hysteria. "What have we done that God is punishing us like this?"
A few Ethiopian monks sat on a row of chairs placed defiantly next to the Egyptian cleric's seat.
Inside the concrete shacks on the church's roof lay more Ethiopian monks nursing their bruises and worrying about how the impoverished community would cover its ambulance bills. Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry said it would mediate between the sides later in the week to resolve the conflict.