‘The Church’ follows the Struggles Within the Holy Sepulchre

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The most holy sight in all of Christianity is the Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem. On the Julian Calendar, on Holy Saturday during the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Holy Week, the Miracle of the Holy Fire is lit by the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch indicating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, as miraculous as this moment is, especially today being Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Churches and I have been lucky enough to be witness to this monumental and life changing event, not all is rosie within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

In the documentary The Church, Israeli Director Anat Tel shares some of the struggles facing the three Abrahamic religions as two Muslim families argue who are the true custodians to the keys of the Church, the six main denominations (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox) fight over the rightful dominion of the Church and an Israeli police officer of Palestinian Christian origins from Nazareth named Johnny, who is in charge of overseeing the protection of the ancient sanctuary, while keeping the fragile peace between all parties involved.

His Grace, Bishop Samuel, an Armenian Apostolic Church cleric (although they refer to him as Fr. Samuel, his vestments and status show he is actually a bishop) shares his story in how he came to Jerusalem 60 years ago and narrates how after 1600 years, there have been struggles not only within Christendom, but all the nations that ruled over Jerusalem for supremacy. Initially, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had only two chapels, one at Golgotha and the other at the Tomb of Christ and that over the centuries, the church was destroyed and rebuild numerous times by the conquerors of Jerusalem, professing that it is a miracle that it remains standing.

Unfortunately, denominational divides created several chapels within the Church. These divides left the Ethiopian Orthodox with just one altar and the rooftop in the 18th Century and a confusing Status Quo arrangement designed by the British 260 years ago that dominates how the Church is structured to this very day.

Bishop Samuel confesses that the power struggle within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not always done with what is expected of a Christian, especially in the behavior of the people participating, because the very real sin of jealous plays a part in this divide, professing, “Hey, that’s life.” Not as a dismissal of that sinful behavior but of the human condition, whether they are holy men or not, no one is exempt from sin.

Bishop Samuel of the Armenian Apostolic Church, photo by David Stragmeister

Sadly, the struggles aren’t so much based on the difference between Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies, but often ethnic and nationalistic strife that predates Christianity (which wasn’t touched upon in the documentary).

On the outside looking in, some might blame the Israeli filmmakers for shedding light on some of the tragedies and struggles faced within Christianity, but as it says in the Gospel According to St. John 1:5 (NKJV), And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. Hopefully, this will help open a greater dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Johnny made a powerful statement in the documentary that with all the struggles for dominion within the Old City of Jerusalem, the one thing that he learned is to be patience and more patience, which in itself is a challenge.

Clearly, the documentary doesn’t just target Christians and shows the difficult relations between the denominations, they also point out the struggles between the two Muslim families who are keepers of the keys to the Church gates, but as an Orthodox Christian, during our Holy Week and especially on Holy Saturday, while reviewing this documentary I am reminded of what Jesus said in the Gospel According to St. Matthew 18:15-17 (NKJV), Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

There is one major issue with The Church documentary and that it is heavily based on Bishop Samuel’s perspective and the Armenian Apostolic Church. I would have very much have liked to hear more from the Greek Orthodox side about the disputes, especially from Archbishop Isidoros, who was only shown for two minutes and never addressed the accusations made by His Grace from the Armenian Apostolic Church. If the Greek Orthodox monastics, clergy and Patriarch himself refused to discuss these issues, at least please tell the audience rather than assume the Greeks accept the Armenian stance and are the guilty party in all of these disputes.

The one underlining factor in this documentary is that all the clergy, no matter how frustrated they became with one another, remained hopeful for better days to come and with the world how it is now, we all need that hope.

The Church is streaming now on the Israeli service Go2Films.

  • Overall Score


The Church takes a sharp look at the struggles within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the documentary heavily favors one denomination’s viewpoint, it does shine the light on how Eastern Christianity as a whole can live as better examples than some of our monastics have shown.

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