Scuffles have broken out between rival groups of Greek Orthodox and Armenian clerics over a turf war in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
Bemused tourists looked on as about 100 priests fought with brooms while cleaning the church in preparation for Orthodox Christmas, on 7 January.
Palestinian police armed with batons and shields broke up the clashes.
Groups of priests have clashed before in the church, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Administration of the 6th century Bethlehem church, the oldest in the Holy Land, is shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clerics.
Any perceived encroachment of jurisdictional boundaries within the church can set off a row, especially during the annual cleaning for Orthodox Christmas celebrations, which will be held next week.
A fragile status quo governs relations among the denominations at the ancient church, and to repair or clean a part of the structure is to own it, according to accepted practice. That means that letting other sects clean part of the church could allow one to gain ground at another’s expense. Similar fights have taken place during the same late-December cleaning effort in the past.
Tensions between rival clergy at the church have been a fact of life there for centuries and have often been caught up in international politics.
In the 1800s, friction between the denominations at the church — each backed by foreign powers — became so fraught that Russian Czar Nicholas I deployed troops along the Danube to threaten a Turkish sultan who had been favoring the Catholics over the Orthodox.
Those disagreements threaten the integrity of the church itself, which was originally built 1,500 years ago and parts of which have fallen into disrepair. Although the roof has needed urgent work for decades, and leaking rainwater has ruined much of the priceless artwork inside, a renovation has been delayed all these years by disagreements among the denominations over who would pay.
Only recently, the Palestinian Authority brokered an agreement to move ahead with replacing the roof, and officials hope work will begin in 2012.
Regarding this year’s fight, Reuters quotes police Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi as saying:
“It was a trivial problem that … occurs every year.
Everything is all right and things have returned to normal.
No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God.”