Priests scuffle at Jesus tomb on Palm Sunday

Israeli police break up a fight between Greek and Armenian clergymen during Palm Sunday processions at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.Kevin Frayer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Greek and Armenian priests and worshippers scuffled at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Palm Sunday, part of a growing rivalry over religious rights at Christianity's holiest shrine.

In the fight, a Greek priest was pushed to the ground and kicked, according to witnesses from both sides. Two Armenian worshippers were briefly detained by Israeli police. Scores of Armenian supporters staged a protest outside the police station during the questioning of the two, beating drums and chanting.

The Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where tradition says Jesus was buried and resurrected, is shared by several Christian denominations according to a centuries-old arrangement known as the "status quo."

Fights over rights of worship at the church have intensified in recent years, particularly between the Armenians and Greeks.

On Sunday, Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy accused each other of trying to violate the status quo.

Father Pakrad, an Armenian priest, said Sunday's incident started when several Greek priests insisted on being present during the Armenian ceremony in the traditional tomb area. Pakrad said the presence of the Greeks was a violation of Armenian rights under the status quo.

The Armenians "couldn't tolerate the presence of a Greek priest during the procession," he said. "Our priests entered the tomb. They kicked the Greek monk out of the Edicule."

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III, told The Associated Press the Armenians are pushing to change the rules governing prayers and services.

"This behavior is criminal and unacceptable by all means," he said. "They wanted to trespass on the status quo concerning the order that regulates the services between the various communities."

Fight before last Christmas
Last year, pre-Christmas cleaning in the Church of the Nativity turned ugly when robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto — also falls under the status quo arrangement.

Pakrad accused the Greek Orthodox of trying to step on the Armenians' rights. "We are the weak ones, persecuted by them for many centuries."

Theofilos accused the Armenians are becoming increasingly aggressive.

"They are trying and claiming to acquire equal status and equal rights. They are not ready to admit that there are various communities there ... and that the Greek Orthodox is the main one in charge of the Holy Sepulcher and the head."

The status quo divides the Holy Sepulcher among the Armenians, Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox who have the largest share. The Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox churches also have duties to maintain specific areas.