Sunday, February 9, 2014

Renovations for the Basilica of the Nativity

The Armenian Altar in the Basilica
of the Nativity in Bethlehem
I see that they are about to undertake a twenty million dollar renovation of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The current basilica was built by the Emperor Justinian in 565 to replace the original basilica built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, in 327.  The Constantinian Basilica had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt of 529.   The Samaritan revolts were a series of rebellions in the late fifth and early sixth centuries against the Byzantine Empire by the Samaritan community in Palestine.  The Samaritans are the descendants of the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, which separated from the Davidic Monarchy in the southern Kingdom of Judah after the death of Solomon.  They rejected the authority of the Davidic Monarchy and, even more important, the Jerusalem Temple which was allied with the House of David.  They built their own temple on Mount Gerazim, near modern day Nablus in the West Bank.  When the Jews were expelled from the Roman province of Syria-Palestine at the end of the Bar Kokhba  Revolt in 135, the Samaritans were allowed to remain.  As the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine Empire, the Samaritans gained a great measure of political autonomy and reached a “golden age.”  Some scholars estimate that the Samaritan population may have reached one million in this time.  (They are less than a thousand today.)  Their temple on Mount Gerazim was rebuilt and the High Priest, Baba Rabbah, established liturgical patterns that are still followed today.  Given this renaissance of Samaritan political and religious power, the Samaritans were used to a certain measure of control over their region, but the Emperor Zeno (ruled 474-491) saw them as a political threat and tried to force them to accept Christianity.  The attempts of the Emperors to reassert control and suppress Samaritan religion and culture in favor of Byzantine Christianity, triggered a series of revolts between 484 and 556.  In the 529 uprising the Basilica of the Nativity was burned to the ground. It was rebuilt by Justinian and that is the structure that still stands.  A fifteen-centuries old building needs some care. 
In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the Basilica on the list of the 100 most endangered sites.  Their report read
The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire. If another earthquake were to occur on the scale of the one of 1834, the result would most likely be catastrophic. ... It is hoped that the listing will encourage its preservation, including getting the three custodians of the church – the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Franciscan order – to work together, which has not happened for hundreds of years. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would also have to work together to protect it.
It was only in 2012 that the Church was declared to be a world heritage site. Israel had blocked this designation for years and the United States supported the Israeli position that had to do no so much with religious issues as that the Church stands in Palestinian territory and Israel has consistently resisted any action that would recognize Palestinian sovereignty.  Fortunately saner heads prevailed and in a vote of 13-6 (conducted by secret ballot to make it easier to support the designation) UNESCO marked the ancient church as a World Heritage Site. 
If you think working around Israeli intransigence towards the Palestinians is tough, try getting the three Christian Churches who have title to the basilica to agree on a project.  The main nave of the Basilica is controlled by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  The Armenian Apostolic Church has an altar in the transept north of the main sanctuary.  The Catholic Church has an adjoining Church of Saint Catherine which is an 1881 rebuilding of a Crusader monastic chapter house as well as several outlaying chapels.  Catholics and Armenians share with the Greeks access to the Grotto of the Nativity which is beneath the main sanctuary of Justinian’s basilica. While the complex is divided among the three, the ownership is shared and any decision regarding its repair must be agreed upon by all three groups.  The Greeks have been particularly hostile to Catholics and Armenians over the years—and I have seen this myself—even physically attacking clergy from the other denominations as they go to pray in the Grotto. 
The danger of the church actually falling down is what has persuaded the Greeks to go along with the plan for the restoration.  The main task will be replacing the rotten beams in the roof and this will cost almost two million dollars.  The roof will be further weatherized to prevent future rot.  That is only the beginning of the work however as the entire building needs to be stabilized and this also presents the opportunity for safer electrical wiring to be installed.  The appearance of the church will not be altered in any way.  Funding is coming from the Palestinan Authority as well as from the Holy See, Russia, France, Greece, and Hungary.  Hopefully the effort will improve relations among the three denominations as well.  

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