Crusading through history

Christians Gather In Bethlehem To Celebrate Christmas

How do you sum up how billions of Christians across the world observe the birth of Christ? It’s difficult to do. This Associated Press round-up begins with a completely unfazed Pope Benedict being knocked down by a deranged woman and ends with 47,000 Filipinos, displaced by an erupting volcano, eating Christmas dinner at shelters. It includes the sad news that some Christians in Pakistan fear marking the day, still scared by the Muslim riots targeting them from earlier this year.

A major chunk of the report looks at Bethlehem, where thousands of pilgrims have come from around the world to be in same town where Jesus was born. That town has seen strife over the years. A reader pointed out this section:

Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town’s holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.

Jeffrey Lynch, 36, a sanitation worker from New York City, was taking a tour through the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Crusader era structure built atop the grottos that mark the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

“It’s a miracle being here on Christmas Eve. It’s a lifetime opportunity. I wish everybody could be here,” he said.

So the Church of the Nativity is a fourth-century Crusader era structure? What does that mean? As the reader who submitted the item notes, it can either be 4th-century or it can be Crusader-era. But it can’t be both.

The Crusades went on over a period of about 200 years, beginning around the end of the 11th century and extending until the end of the 13th century.

The first basilica for the Church of the Nativity was begun by Constantine I’s mother and was completed in 333. After a fire during the Samaritan Revolt of 529, the church was rebuilt in 565. Even when various groups invaded or attacked in subsequent years, the structure was not destroyed. It has been expanded over the years and is quite large now.

Tmatt has written about media confusion over this church structure before. Back in 2002, Palestinian militants took over the building in an attempt to seek shelter from Israeli Defense Forces who were after them. The church has various parts operated by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities. All three have religious communities on site. TMatt wrote after a tour there:

The main lesson I learned was that the Church of the Nativity is not one building. Nevertheless, most news about the recent Bethlehem siege described it has one church served by 30 or more priests, monks and nuns. Sadly, the reality is more splintered than that and recent events may have deepened the cracks.

Journalists said Palestinians in “the monastery” exchanged fire with Israeli troops. Which monastery? There are separate Roman Catholic and Greek monasteries and an Armenian Orthodox convent. “The priests” said they were not held hostage. Which priests? Gunmen raided food supplies and trashed monastic cells. In which cloister?

It’s just a good reminder that there are two churches on this often tense and highly symbolic site, a key element that is missed in much media coverage. The facts, as always, matter in this kind of story.

And Merry Christmas everyone!

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  • Jerry

    It’s just a good reminder that there are two churches on this site, a key element that is missed in much media coverage.

    Mollie, that comment left me very puzzled because everything I’ve read including http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-church-of-the-nativity speaks of a church with three different groups, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian administering it and occasionally having turf wars like the one that happened two years ago.

  • Jonathan S.

    Mollie,
    I was also confused by that comment as you even mention the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian groups in your post.

  • Julia

    Checking on the Sacred Destinations website, it becomes apparent that St Catherine’s Catholic Church is the other church. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-st-catherine.htm

    St Catherine’s is also the church of an ancient monastery (now Franciscan) and has an association with St Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin for the Pope in Rome and then retired to study in the Holy Land. You can enter the Grotto underneath the Church of the Nativity from St Catherine’s; St Jerome is buried under the Church of the Nativity; and there are other caves under St Catherine’s associated with the Nativity.

    So although not part and parcel of the official Church of the Nativity, it’s easy to see how the complex has at least 2 buildings.

    The website identifies the denomination of the Nativity Church as the Greek Orthodox although it otherwise states that The Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics also have altars there.

    At one point the site describes the three religious groups as Greeks, Armenians and Latins. Calling the Church connected with the Pope Latin as opposed to Roman makes lots of sense when discussing it along with churches of the East.


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