Muslims Keep Watch Over Holy Shrine


Filed at 6:55 a.m. ET

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Wajeeh Nuseibeh, a Muslim, says

someone from his family has opened and closed the

massive wooden doors of Christianity's holiest shrine

pretty much every day for more than a millennium.

Christian sects squabbling over stewardship of the

place have never trusted one another with the key.

In the shadow of Mideast violence, the Church of the

Holy Sepulcher appears to be a place of profound

peace. Visitors are awed by its ancient stone walls,

ornate icons and the solemn echo of monks singing

centuries-old Latin hymns.

But the many denominations who must share the church

have competed for power and quarreled over different

rituals and theological points of view for


The current structure was built by European crusaders

in 1099 around a huge rock believed to be Golgotha --

the site where Jesus was crucified. The Roman emperor

Constantine built an earlier church here in the 4th


In such a holy place, even mundane tasks like dusting

stones or tending candles are contested. That's why a

Muslim must open and close the door each day.

``To be honest, sometimes there is animosity with one

another, therefore there can't be agreement on who

should take the key,'' said Father Armando Pierucci,

67, a Franciscan from Italy who plays the church's

booming pipe organ.

Tensions still run raw. Coptic and Ethiopian monks,

who share control of the roof, hurled stones and threw

punches July 28, because a 72-year-old Coptic priest

shifted out of the white-hot sun into the shade. His

move was considered a challenge to the Ethiopians'

sovereignty over a courtyard they've held for two


Nuseibeh, whose business card says he is the

``Custodian and Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy

Sepulcher,'' admits his family has taken on an unusual

job. But the former electronics repairman and tour

guide believes his role is vital.

``We are here as a people of peace in the church,'' he


Nuseibeh, 50, took over the task from his father 25

years ago. He has 400-year-old documents declaring

that his family is in control of the doors. Some are

painted in gold on deer skin, with the seal of a

Turkish sultan.

Another Muslim family, the Joudehs, guards the 10-inch

iron key.

The arrangement has made for a quirky ritual. Each

morning, a Joudeh hands the key to a Nuseibeh. A

priest passes a wooden ladder through a latched window

in the door, and the Nuseibeh climbs to unlock the

spring-loaded iron lock.

During the last two years of Mideast fighting,

Nuseibeh has sent someone else to heave open the heavy

wooden doors at 4 a.m., because he fears walking

through the city in darkness. But he still makes daily

trips to the church.

In 638, an agreement between the conquering Muslim

Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab and the Greek patriarch put

the church's key in the hands of Nuseibeh's ancestors.

His clan had come to Jerusalem from Medina, as Islamic

missionaries, he said.

The Nuseibehs remained the sole gatekeepers until the

Crusades, when armies of European knights massacred

thousands of people in the Holy Land. The Nuseibehs

fled to Nablus and lived there until the next Muslim

conquest of Jerusalem, he said.

The Joudeh family took control of the key during

Ottoman rule, which began in 1517.

Nuseibeh says sometimes Christian visitors wonder why

Muslims are in charge of the entrance to the shrine.

``Some people are nervous when they hear that Muslims

are the door keepers,'' he said. ``I tell them this is

the reality of this place. We are protecting

Christianity to give them their freedom to pray.''


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