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Holy Sepulchre church is safety hazard says Israeli official


Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s most venerated sites, poses a safety hazard to visitors, the Israeli Tour Guide Association has said.

"The number of tourists visiting the church is increasing and there are days when it is impossible to move in the church, with so many people," said Roby Harly, the director of the tour guide association, in a statement on 27 October. "The most dangerous thing is the lack of an emergency exit."

He said there are often more than 1000 visitors to the church at once, and that this could prove disastrous if there is ever the need to evacuate the building, which is built on the site where the New Testament says Jesus was crucified, and also buried, around 2000 years ago.

"That is a lot of people for a church of that size," Harly said. "If a fire breaks out from a falling candle people would go into a panic and get bottlenecked at the entrance where other people have been trying to get in. It is a recipe for disaster."

The tour guide association also said the steep marble stairwell leading up to the Golgotha, which is believed to be the crucifixion site of Jesus, is problematic and pilgrims have slipped on the over-sized stairs.

One solution would be the creation of another exit and for the visiting hours to be extended. However, Harly acknowledged that the configuration of the Status Quo Agreement between the six Christian denominations, which share in rights at the church, exacerbates the difficulties of reaching a resolution.

The Status Quo is a 19th-century agreement that regulates jurisdiction of key Christian sites in Jerusalem. Among those sites is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Any changes in the structure of the church – and even cleaning of the area – must be agreed upon by all the religious communities concerned.

According to the Status Quo agreement, the sovereign authority – which is now Israel – cannot make structural or administrative decisions about the shared holy sites and can only enforce the communal agreements.

Earlier in October, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which occupies a small rooftop courtyard and chapel, sent a letter to Israel’s interior ministry asking for their intervention in carrying out renovations at their monastery. The letter cited an engineering report asserting that the roof is in danger of collapse.

However, because of a centuries-old dispute with the Coptic Orthodox Church, which claims ownership of the area, the two churches have been unable to reach an agreement. The Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox Churches are also part of the Status Quo agreement.

(c) Ecumenical News International