Armenian Jerusalem
or a true, believing Christian, Easter is the most meaningful time to visit Jerusalem, the city where Jesus the Son of Man lived and taught and suffered, died and rose again in triumph. At any other time, the city lies warily somnolent amid the political turmoil gripping the Holy Land, playing gotcha with the coy phantom of peace - the luxury and the longing of every single person living in the Old City (and of people of goodwill around the world) Few have any illusions peace will be attainable within their lifetime. But they never cease to hope, their belief bolstered by an unwritten understanding between Arabs and Jews that Jerusalem must not become a free-for-all. But for every political initiative that heightens these expectations, there inevitably ensues a counter measure that dampens them. Jerusalem is sacred to the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), and each in turn acts to safeguard its holy places. For the followers of these religions, every age-old ritual and tradition is carved in rock and no deviation is conceivable. Where such a travesty has occurred, the consequences have often been bloody. Witness the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising following a controversial visit to the Dome of the Rock (one of Islam's holiest shrines) by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For the various Christian denominations in Jerusalem, the question of holy site control, and the nature and timing of the rites conducted in them, have always been a bone of contention, but it has been possible for the churches to keep a tenuous peace and come to an understanding of mutual interests, despite occasional flare-ups, thanks in great measure to a set of principles and guidelines first promulgated around 1850. All Christian churches have bound themselves over to acceptance of this "status quo" which encapsulates a pledge made over 150 years ago by the ruling potentate, Turkish Sultan Abdul Majid, and which "defines, regulates and maintains, without change, the proprietary rights in the Holy Places granted exclusively to the three major Christian rites - Greek, Armenian and Latin Catholic -thus making the Armenian Church equal in stature to the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches despite its relatively small size," according to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Occasionally, the principles are flouted , often with bloody results as clergymen trade blows within sacred precincts, in full view of disbelieving pilgrims and tourists. Things become particularly touchy during the Holy Fire ceremony commemorating the resurrection of Christ. The ceremony takes place within the traditional tomb of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christendom's most venerated edifice. "We believe that on this day, the Holy Fire descends from heaven and lights up the lamp within the Tomb of Christ, thereby symbolizing the resurrection of Christ and his victory over death," the Armenian Patriarchate notes. It calls this "descent of fire from heaven" one of the greatest miracles of Christianity. The material part of the ceremony, acceptance of the holy fire, is conducted within the aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher, which consists of two chambers, the Angel’s Chapel and the Holy Tomb Chapel. In accordance with centuries-old practice, at the highlight of the ceremony, the Greek Patriarch and the Armenian Patriarch, or their representatives, enter the Holy Tomb, kneel down in front of the Tomb, and witness the miracle of the descent of the Holy Fire, together. The Holy Fire is then transferred by the Greek and Armenian celebrant to other members of the Eastern Churches through two windows located in the wall of the Angel’s Chapel - and finds its way around the world as pilgrims light up candles, lamps and torches from it. Fire brigades are always on standby in case there a fire breaks out - but there has not been a fire within living memory. "That in itself is a great miracle," as one Armenian priest observed.

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