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Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher

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Title: Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher  
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Subject: Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Holy Synod of Jerusalem
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Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, or The Holy Community of the All-Holy Sepulchre, is the Orthodox monastic fraternity that for centuries has guarded and protected the Christian Holy places in the Holy Land. A sepulchre is a burial chamber and in this case Holy Sepulchre refers to the burial chamber of Jesus, believed to be in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Brotherhood also administers the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the chief, president, governor, and hegumen of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and is commemorated as “Our Father and Lord, the Most Holy Beatitude, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and of all Palestine.”

Members of the Brotherhood are the administrative officers of the Patriarchate; and the metropolitans, archbishops, bishops, archimandrites, hieromonks, hierodeacons, and monks of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem are members of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was traditionally founded in 313 (which corresponds with the Edict of Milan and legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire) and the foundation of the Churches in the Holy Land by Constantine and St Helen, which is traditionally dated to 326. At first, it bore the name "Order of the Spoudaeoi (studious, zealous, industrious, serious)," or "The Spoudaeoi of the Holy Resurrection of Christ."

The Brotherhood consisted of the ordained clergy charged with the care and preservation of the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places in Jerusalem. They were distinguished primarily for their observance of uninterrupted mental prayer and heartfelt supplication. At the same time, the Members of the Brotherhood were renowned for their virtuous and diligent ascetic life. According to findings of contemporary researchers, they were living ascetic lives before 326 and were organized as an Order during the visit of St Helen to the Holy City. St Cyril of Jerusalem makes mention of them.

Holy places

The Holy places that the Brotherhood has preserved over the centuries include: the Holy Sepulchre; the Dreadful Golgotha; the site where St Helen discovered the Precious Cross (these three are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre); the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; the Tomb of the Mother of God in Gethsemane; the Pool of Siloam; Mount Tabor; the site of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan; Nazareth, the city of the Annunciation; the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret, and the Sea of Tiberius); the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s Ascension; Cana; Bethesda; Capernaum, a city of Galilee; the Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany; and Jacob's Well in Nablus.


The history of the Brotherhood is closely linked with the history of the Christian Church in Palestine which began in the Apostolic Age.

327 to 638

Following Constantine's Peace of the Church in 313, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was founded under the patronage of St Helen, at the time of Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem.

At about the same time, St Hilarion introduced monasticism in Palestine, erected the first monastery, ordered and regulated monastic life, and formed the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. Besides devotional duties, the purpose of the Brotherhood is the support and protection of all of the Holy places in Palestine, including the Holy Sepulchre, Golgotha.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) elevated the Bishop of Jerusalem to the rank of Patriarch because of the special significance acquired between the First and Fourth Ecumenical Councils; the erection of magnificent Churches; the conversion of Palestine to Christianity; the coming together of pilgrims from around the world; the importance of outstanding bishops, monks, and teachers of the Church of Jerusalem; the struggles of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher on behalf of Orthodoxy; and the support of various Emperors of Byzantium.

The Brotherhood had to struggle to preserve the holy places began during this period. The Persians occupied Jerusalem in 614 and took Patriarch Zachariah prisoner, along with the palladium of Christianity, the Precious Cross. Chrysostomos Papadopoulos writes in his history of the Patriarchate: "The Churches and the monasteries, inside and outside Jerusalem, were destroyed; the Christians were brutally slaughtered … thousands of prisoners purchased by Jews were slaughtered. Anything good that existed was destroyed or was plundered by the invaders. The monks were slaughtered mercilessly, especially those of St Savvas Monastery."

Between 617-626, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt by Patriarch Modesto.

In 637, after a long siege of Jerusalem, Patriarch Sophronius surrendered Jerusalem to Caliph Umar. In the Covenant of Umar I, the Patriarch managed to save the shrines from destruction and, at the same time, to secure the ownership of the holy places as well as the privileges of the Brotherhood.

638 to 1517

During this period, the Church of Jerusalem and the Brotherhood suffered many persecutions and trials. The shrines were repeatedly ransacked and defaced by the successors of Umur, and there was great persecution all around. The most deadly persecution occurred during the time of the Fatamid Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (1007–1009), a schizophrenic, named the "Nero of Egypt" for his merciless acts. He persecuted ferociously both Christians and Jews. He ordered that in public Jews were to wear masks representing the head of an ox and bells around their necks; Christians were to wear mourning apparel and crosses one yard in length. Also, Al-Hakim ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the 11th century, the Caliph Ali az-Zahir, under a treaty with Byzantium, permitted the reconstruction of the shrines.

During the Crusades, the Brotherhood confronted new persecutions. Being expelled by the Latin clergy from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places, the Brotherhood regrouped in the Metochion of the Lavra of St Savvas and eventually regained possession of the holy places in 1185.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Patriarch Athanasios went to Constantinople and there received from Mehmed II the document that confirmed the ownership of the holy places by the Brotherhood.

1517 to World War I

The Brotherhood continued to struggle against the Latins and the Armenians who the Brotherhood regarded as encroaching on their traditional rights and authority over the Holy places, both of which they claimed had been confirmed by Byzantine and then Muslim authorities.

During this period the Brotherhood undertook the following construction works:

  1. repairing the canopy of the Holy Sepulchre in 1545 by Patriarch Germanos;
  2. rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1808 after it was burnt by the Armenians;
  3. rebuilding the small dome over the Holy Sepulchre in 1927;
  4. rebuilding the ædicule surrounding the Holy Sepulchre in 1931-1933; and,
  5. repairing and refurbishing the Church of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem in 1842.

Modern status

The Brotherhood was reconstituted during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine before and after World War I, and continues its defence of the religious status quo, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jordanian Law No. 227, dated 16 January 1958, regulates the Brotherhood’s government.

Status quo

After the renovation of 1555, control of the church oscillated between the Franciscans and the Orthodox, depending on which community could obtain a favorable firman from the Sublime Porte at a particular time, often through outright bribery, and violent clashes were not uncommon. In 1767, weary of the squabbling, the Porte issued a firman that divided the church among the claimants. This was confirmed in 1852 with another firman that made the arrangement permanent, establishing a status quo of territorial division among the communities.

The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox Church, which has the lion's share, the Custodian of the Holy Land, an official of the Franciscans and affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Churches. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.

Under the status quo, no part of what is designated as common territory may be so much as rearranged without consent from all communities. This often leads to the neglect of badly needed repairs when the communities cannot come to an agreement among themselves about the final shape of a project. Just such a disagreement has delayed the renovation of the edicule, where the need is now dire, but also where any change in the structure might result in a change to the status quo disagreeable to one or more of the communities.

A less grave sign of this state of affairs is located on a window ledge over the church's entrance. Someone placed a wooden ladder there sometime before 1852, when the status quo defined both the doors and the window ledges as common ground. The ladder remains there to this day, in almost exactly the same position. It can be seen to occupy the ledge in century-old photographs and engravings.

None of the communities controls the main entrance. In 1192, Saladin assigned responsibility for it to a Muslim family. The Joudeh Al-Goudia a noble family with a long history were entrusted with the keys as custodians. This arrangement has persisted into modern times.

Breaches of the status quo

The establishment of the status quo did not halt the violence, which continues to break out every so often even in modern times. For example, on a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk who is stationed on the roof to express Coptic claims to the Ethiopian territory there moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, leading to a fracas, with eleven people being hospitalized.[1]

In another incident in 2004 during Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured.[2]

On Palm Sunday, in April 2008, a brawl broke out due to a Greek monk being ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were called to the scene but were also attacked by the enraged brawlers.[3] A clash erupted between Armenian and Greek monks on Sunday 9 November 2008, during celebrations for the Feast of the Holy Cross.[4][5]

See also


External links

  • The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre at the Jerusalem Patriarchate
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