Restoration of Christ's tomb at Church of the Holy Sepulcher brings Orthodox, Apostolics and Catholics together

by Tobin Perry, |
A Christian boy lights a candle inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the 2014 Easter Sunday mass procession in Jerusalem's old city. | REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Christian Examiner)—Three often competing Christian groups have committed to work together to save one of Christianity's most treasured sites—the shrine to the empty tomb of Jesus housed in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches announced last month a $3.4 million renovation effort that will begin in May. The three churches will split the costs evenly (along with some private and public contributions). Each of the three will also appoint architects to help. The work should be done by early 2017, before the next Easter season.

"If the Israeli government didn't get involved, nobody would have done anything."

The Israeli government temporarily barricaded the structure in February of 2015, claiming the shrine was unsafe and near collapse. For the past year the three groups have worked together to come up with a renovation plan.

For decades the shrine — a few meters tall and wide — has been held together by a metal frame, according to The Times of Israel. The structure's marble slabs have weakened throughout the years thanks to frequent visits from pilgrims and tourists.

A report in The New York Times on April 6 described how the Greek team that will lead the project will undergo the painstaking work of deconstructing layers of historical additions to the shrine in their efforts to renovate it. They'll start with removing the iron cage, built by the British in 1947 in a previous attempt to keep the structure from collapsing. They will then turn their attention to taking apart the ornate marble shell built by the Ottomans in 1810. Next, they'll work on the remains of a 12th-century Crusader shrine lying underneath. Last but not least, the ambitious project will focus on the stone tomb, believed by many to be Jesus' tomb.

Though the work has needed to be done for years, infighting between the three religious groups who control the tomb today has long delayed any renovations. Particularly stifling to the effort, according to The New York Times, has been "centuries-old rules and minute traditions — called the status quo — that define the way Jerusalem's holy sites are governed. According to this "status quo," even the act of repairing a holy site can imply ownership.

The Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, the Armenian Patriarchate's representative at the church, has admitted that it took pressure from the Israelis — and the threat of the shrine's closure — to get the three rival groups to work together on the project.

"If the Israeli government didn't get involved, nobody would have done anything," Aghoyan said.

Many Protestants assert that The Garden Tomb, which sits right outside of Jerusalem's Old City, is the true tomb of Jesus.