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Patriarch Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem (center), splashes holy water toward worshippers after the washing of the feet ceremony in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 2009, during Easter celebrations. A crisis was narrowly averted recently when the church's $2.3 million water bill was waived.
One of the holiest sites in Christendom has also been one of the most contested. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem lies on the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and buried.
Multiple Christian denominations share the church uneasily, and clerics sometimes come to blows over the most minor of disputes. The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox all have a presence in the church.
But the most recent conflict at the 4th century church was over something entirely different: an unpaid water bill.
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Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (right) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (center) pray in front of the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in November.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (right) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (center) pray in front of the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in November. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Last month, a dispute over water used by the church nearly closed its doors — until some high-level diplomacy defused the row.
Since the Ottoman Empire, the political authority in Jerusalem had traditionally waived the church's water bills — until the Israeli water company was privatized in 2003. Since then, the charge has grown to 9 million Israeli shekels, or $2.3 million, including interest.
Father Fakitsas Isidoros, superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, said the water company should settle the problem with the Jerusalem municipal government.
"We are willing, in the future, to pay the bills of water. But the [debts before the] 9 million [are] not our problem," he said. "They have to discuss with the municipality to solve the problem."
The dispute prompted the water company to freeze the patriarchate's local bank account, which Isidoros said caused even more headaches.
"Of course it's very difficult, because we cannot pay the salaries or blessings for our fathers — the electricity, the telephone bills here, everything," he said.
Finally, it took a meeting between Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Israeli President Shimon Peres to get the water company to waive the 9 million shekels and the church to promise to start paying for water.
Theofilos III (center) pours water into a basin during the washing of the feet ceremony outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City in April 2011, during Easter celebrations.
Theofilos III (center) pours water into a basin during the washing of the feet ceremony outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City in April 2011, during Easter celebrations. Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Wajeeh Nuseibeh is the church's doorkeeper. In another twist, he is a Palestinian Muslim, whose family has opened and closed the church's heavy wooden doors every day for the past 1,300 years. He says that the church, located in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, provides more than just spiritual facilities.
"Most of the water [is] used by the pilgrims, because they are going to [the] washroom, and nobody pays for that," he says. "They enter through the church normally. We don't charge people to come into the church or go to the bathroom."
Indeed, the church's public toilets are among the few in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
Israel has pledged to act as a responsible custodian for all the holy places of all religions.
But Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, says that younger generations of Israeli Jews have grown up increasingly isolated from minority communities and unaware of what the pledge of custodianship requires of them.
"This is a new experience for us as Jews to be the majority here, and to be responsible for Christian communities," Bendcowsky says. "We used to be minorities among Christians, and suddenly we are the majority, and we have the responsibility over Christian minorities."
And yes, she says, that responsibility extends all the way down to the plumbing.