Easter and Not-Easter: Tensions at the Holy Sepulchre

It genuinely pains me to write this. Not simply because I have to relive the events, but because it confirms my worries that we, the global human community, will exit the pandemic one day and return to our divisive, disdainful ways. There’s an us and there’s a them, whether that be based on nationality, religion, race, sex, just to name a few. I used to think that the “Holy Sepulchre monk fight” video from 2015 on YouTube was funny because it seemed so ridiculously frivolous and absurdly improbable to me that I couldn’t possibly take it seriously. After what I witnessed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today, however, I no longer find that video unlikely or even remotely humorous.

I chose to swing by the Church of Holy Sepulchre this morning just to see if there were any Easter festivities taking place by the Catholic representation in Jerusalem, considering that the Orthodox don’t celebrate Easter for another month. I arrived just after 10 am, right before the gates to the Church were closed off for the Gospel procession led by the Catholic Archbishop. The crowd at the time did not compare in the slightest to pre-pandemic crowds, if it was an average weekday let alone Easter, but the Holy Sepulchre most likely had not seen that many people, both pilgrims and curious visitors alike, all at once in a long time.

Immediately following the conclusion of the procession, men wearing black robes (presumably Orthodox priests) ran out from behind us to roll out long rectangular red rugs just outside the mouth of the Tomb. I decided that I wanted to see what an Orthodox service looked like, since I had previously never had the opportunity to do so and I have some friends who attend Orthodox services on occasion. The guards and priests repeatedly asked us, non-Orthodox visitors, to move as a variety of rituals and processions occurred, while the Orthodox faithful remained directly across from the tomb. In general, for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary.

As time waned on and my knees began to feel sore after standing erect without rest for nearly two hours, suddenly I was ordered by (presumably) a priest to move. “You, over there,” he pointed at a spot on the floor two steps to my left. Without really thinking, I turned and took my two steps slowly. Seeing how this sort of thing was routine, I saw no need to rush. Satisfied, the priest strolled back to standing at the center of the crowd, his ponytail swishing behind him.

Shortly after my move, however, a young girl with a light pink hijab maneuvered towards the front of the group and veered right, towards the crowd of Orthodox worshippers. The ponytailed priest’s face analyzed the girl with a grimace, internally acknowledging that she had no right to be there. She promptly returned, a small laugh escaping her mouth as she said something to her unveiled friend in Arabic. Almost instantaneously, the priest lunged at her and grabbed her hand. At that very moment, I didn’t even consider the fact that any type of physical contact between a man and a woman, especially a woman wearing a hijab, was forbidden in Islam. “I’m going to call the police!” he roared at her as my eyes laid fixated on her hand, which grasped her phone and a can of Coca-Cola. Despite my own shock and sudden spike in adrenaline, my eyes lifted to that of the girl’s. Her light eyes met mine. I could see the fearfully surprised look on her face; she was no older than twenty. Without really thinking, I said “hey, chill” with the “hey” exiting my mouth while I was still looking at the girl and the “chill” as I turned back towards the ponytailed priest. “Get out!” he spat at her and her friend, “GET OUT!”

I looked around the crowd, no one seemed to raise an eyebrow or share an expression of concern. I couldn’t believe it. Had they not seen what I had just seen? Had they not heard what I just heard? The utter impiety? The complete lack of respect? Of course, the first time he invoked the police as a threat was towards a Muslim girl. I can’t know for sure whether he called the land he stood on Palestine or Israel, but he knew the weight of his words when he directed them at her.

A little while later, he returned to my section of the crowd and at the corner of my eye he pointed at a woman who was also wearing a light pink head covering (although not a hijab) and who had participated in the synchronised signs of the cross and bowing. “Stay there, -itch,” he snarled. My head immediately shot up and saw the woman remaining motionless, fixating on the tomb. Could I have misheard? Did he actually say what I think he said? What was the first letter? I couldn’t quite catch it. If he had said that to me, I thought, I certainly would have asked him to clarify.

Only a few moments afterwards, a woman with a black head covering shifted positions from standing on my left to standing directly in front of me, to which the same hotheaded priest protested by pointing at her and saying “get back or I’m going to call the police.” There it was, the second police threat against a woman standing among the non-Orthodox crowd. In response, she apologized and moved back to her previous position. A picture of Jesus was proudly on display in her phone case wallet.

Within about five minutes, once again he approached the center of the crowd, pointing off into the indistinguishable sea of people. “Get out, -itch”, he accused. “Shorts are forbidden, get out.” I realized that at this point, he will relentlessly administer his sense of authority onto anyone he did not deem worthy or anyone whom he deemed to be stepping out of line. Did I see the woman he was pointing at and her attire? No, I didn’t. Did his newfound hostility continue to surprise me? Most definitely.

I need to get out of here, I thought, nothing good will come of this. What if I’m next? I could be standing perfectly still and he could still hurl his disapproval at me…and there would be no way of expecting it. He must think very little of us, I concluded.

Luckily no further disturbances occurred, minus a few kind greetings the troublesome priest exchanged with a couple nuns, and I stayed until he declared that the visiting hours for the tomb would begin at 2 pm, it was 1:16 pm. I couldn’t have been happier to leave all the tension and division behind from a religion that relentlessly preaches tolerance, love, acceptance, and universality. That it does not discriminate. An old woman, assumedly Orthodox, stood just as long as I did while balancing on two crutches, but men and women who donned black masks with a small, printed Greek flag had the opportunity to sit both in the back and immediately next to the tomb.

When I got home I immediately looked up the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the structure of the service. I came to discover that there is a point in the Liturgy that traditionally doesn’t allow for non-Orthodox people to remain under the same roof as the rest of the congregation, although the practice in most Orthodox churches apparently is no longer enforced. Maybe that’s why he became so aggressive towards the crowd at a certain point, I reluctantly reasoned on behalf of the aggressor, but why couldn’t he have simply explained that? Surely, there was a better way for him to have handled those encounters, instead of using his accusatory tone and use of physical force.

The Holy Sepulchre fight video popped into my head and I couldn’t resist pulling it up on YouTube, perhaps for the last time. Interestingly enough, one of the first clear images on the screen that showcase a brawl depicts a man with a ponytail wearing black robes holding a monk in a headlock. It probably wasn’t, I thought, but the connection was there and I felt transported back to the events that transpired just a short hour ago.

About the Author
Catherine Szkop is a first generation Polish American with Jewish roots from the US, specifically Michigan, currently living in Israel as a graduate student in Jewish Studies focusing on Medieval to modern Polish-Jewish history as well as Israeli sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She decided to move to Israel in order to connect with her Jewish ancestry and with the people who come from many different backgrounds, but all live in this small, yet dynamic region.
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