09/07/2006, 00.00
HOLY LAND
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Bethlehem: lock put back in Basilica of the Nativity

by Arieh Cohen

The lock had been stolen and replaced in summer of 2002 by some Greek Orthodox monks, who thus effectively prevented access to Catholics and Armenians. Now the "common" one has been restored in its place. This is thanks to the Palestinian Authority and the new patriarch Theophilos, and there are hopes that it is a sign of things to come.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land yesterday published the following statement: "On Saturday, 2 September, 2006, by prior arrangement, the lock was put back in the Main Door of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem - which had been illegally removed from it in the spring or summer of 2002. Present were the representatives of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as well as those of the Palestinian Authority.

"The Custody expresses its appreciation for the decision of the present Greek Orthodox Patriarch, His Beatitude Theophilos, of letting the lock be re-installed, as well as for the firm and principled role of the Palestinian Authority, which carried out in this matter the obligation assumed in Article 4 of the 'Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the P.L.O.'

"It is the fervent hope of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land that henceforth the internationally recognised legal régime of Status Quo, in those Christian Holy Places to which it applies, will be respected and observed by all, and that the conduct of all who have part in governing these Shrines will thus be wrothy of their uniquely sacred character. Bethlehem is, after all, precisely the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

Thus has come to a satisfactory end one of the most serious challenges to the Holy Places in recent times.

It all started when some Greek Orthodox monks stole the lock on the main door of the Basilica of the Nativity, and replaced it with a lock of their own, thus rendering useless the keys held, respectively, by the Catholic and the Armenian Churches. The theft was discovered on 20 August 2002, and both the Catholic and the Armenian Churches protested to then Greek Orthodox Patriarch, to no effect. It was pointed out to the Patriarch that the theft and clandestine substitution of the lock was a grave violation of the legal régime of Status Quo, threatening the entire arrangement, by which the three communities (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian) share the use of the Shrine. To no avail.

 The Churches then addressed a solemn appeal to the Palestinian Authority, which administers the Bethlehem area, and which has an obligation under international law, and also specifically under the Holy See's "Basic Agreement" with the Palestinians (15 February 2000) to enforce the legal régime at the Shrine.

The commission appointed by the late Palestinian President Arafat to see to this, decided already in December 2003 that the stolen lock should be restored. However, until last Saturday, that decision was waiting to be carried out.

The well known vicissitudes of the Palestinian territories in the meantime must have had an important part in delaying by so much the actual implementation of the decision. However, the passage of time has also meant that the violently anti-Catholic Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos was meanwhile deposed by his own Synod, for other misconduct, and Theophilos elected in his place. This made it easier for the Palestinian Authority to ensure observance of its treaty with the Catholic Church without resorting to coercive means (which, at a certain point, if matters were still unresolved, it would have had both the right and the duty to do).

Indeed, in the end, Patriarch Theophilos himself appears to have taken the initiative to return the lock, although no doubt thanks, at least in part, to the constant encouragement from the Palestinian Authority.

The happy resolution of this affair, after more than four years, is significant for a number of reasons: It will encourage Catholics (and Armenians) everywhere to support even more emphatically the right of the Greek Orthodox to religious freedom in electing their own leaders; in fact, the Government of Israel is still refusing to "recognise" the canonical election of Theophilos.

There can be little doubt that Theophilos himself has been counting on such increased support in reversing his predecessor's anti-Catholic policy, and finally agreeing to the demand - by the Churches and the Palestinian government - to return the lock peacefully.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has gained merit by recognising in this case its obligations concerning the Holy Places, under the 'Basic Agreement' with the Holy See, and has thereby given a positive signal concerning the prospects of the Catholic Church in reference to the future Palestinian republic.

A "fervent hope" is indeed appropriate that both the more more eirenic approach of Patriarch Theophilos (so unlike the conduct of his ironically named discredited predecessor Irineos...)  to the Catholic Church, and the "firm and principled role" of the Palestinian Authority in relation to its treaty with the Catholic Church, will be consistent characteristics of times to come.

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