The Turbulent History of Church of Nativity at Bethlehem

Dec 23, 2008

The Christmas season has been a period of peace and tranquility. Even during the wars, the belligerent nations would make it a point to have temporary ceasefire during Christmas to honour the 'Prince of Peace' and enable the people of the warring nations to celebrate the festival. In this background it would surprise many that the Church of Nativity at Bethlehem became a bone of contention between Russia and France which led to a major conflict known as the Crimean War (1853-56) in which major European powers were involved.

The Church of the Nativity is one of Christianity's oldest and most sacred shrines built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. This birth place of Jesus is said to have been identified by St Justin Martyr around 160 AD. According to tradition the Roman Emperor, Constantine and his mother St Helena patronized the construction of the church over the cave of the nativity in 327 AD. Though the original church was destroyed during the Samaritan uprising in 529 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church in 530 AD on a grand scale and splendour that is still in existence.

The Church of Nativity at Bethlehem was the victim of the most turbulent history of the region. For centuries a number of wars were fought for the protection and possession of the most sacred shrine in Christendom. During the Persian invasion of 614 AD, the church was saved miraculously when the Persians were surprised to see a representation of the Magi from Persia on a façade decorated with colourful mosaic and spared it from destruction. Later, the church was seized and defended by a succession of Muslim and Crusader armies.

In course of time the Church of Nativity complex was expanded by the addition of several chapels and monasteries that include the Franciscan monastery in the north, the Greek Orthodox convent in the southeast and the Armenian monastery in the southwest.

From mid-15th century the Holy Land in Palestine including the Church of Nativity of Bethlehem came under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a vast empire covering the Asia Minor, part of Europe-the Balkan Peninsula and northern Africa.

Over the years the Ottoman Empire became weak due to internal conflicts and external pressure. While the Balkan nationalities such as the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and Rumanians sought an opportunity to rebel against the Turkish authority, the Russian Empire was keen to expand towards the Mediterranean region at the cost of the Ottoman Empire supporting the Balkan people with whom it has racial and religious affinity. On the other hand the British policy was centered on the preservation of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian imperial expansion.

The course of events that led to a major conflict in the form of the Crimean War among the European nations between 1853 and 1856 can be traced to the dispute between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox monks over the control of the Holy Places, especially the Church of Nativity at Bethlehem in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. By an earlier treaty going back to 1740, France had acquired from the Ottoman Sultan the custody of the Holy Places in Palestine. Thus, France considered herself as the protector of the Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire.

On the other hand, by another treaty signed between the Sultan of Turkey and Catherine the Great of Russia in 1774, the former had recognized Russia as the guardian of the Greek Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Up to the middle of the 18th century, the Roman Catholic monks were recognized by the Ottoman Sultans as the guardians of the Holy Shrines in Palestine. However, in thee later half of the 18th century, the Roman Catholic monks neglected their responsibility which was gradually taken over by the Orthodox monks, who had the possession of the keys of the main door of the Church of Nativity at Bethlehem, whereas the Catholic monks had the keys of the side doors.

The French Emperor, Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) was eager to win over the support of different sections of the French population, especially the Roman Catholics by upholding the right of the Roman Catholic monks in the Holy Land. He made a representation to the Ottoman Sultan to recognize the treaty obligations of 1740 and restore the Catholic monks their legitimate right of having the possession of the keys of the main door of the Church of Nativity and the right to place a silver star on the birth place of Jesus.

Being pressurized by Napoleon III, the Sultan seemed to agree to the French demands. Meanwhile, the Russian Tsar sent a mission to Constantinople for a settlement in favour of the Orthodox monks in the Holy Land. Being indirectly supported by the British, the Sultan rejected the demand of Russia. To intimidate the Sultan, Russia invaded the neighbouring Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia in July 1853.

Though the European Powers attempted to bring about a compromise between Russia, France and Turkey, being confident of the British and French support, the Sultan of Turkey declared war on Russia in October, 1853. Thus, the dispute among the Roman Catholic and Orthodox monks over the issue of possession of the keys of the main door of the Church of Nativity at Bethlehem supported by France and Russia respectively led to a major war which came to be known as the Crimean War as the final battles of the war were fought on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea.

In the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire was supported by England, France and the Italian Kingdom of Piedmont. After three years of conflict and destruction of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula by the joint Anglo-French fleet, the Russian government agreed for peace.

It is quite interesting to note that though the immediate cause of the Crimean War was the dispute between the Catholic and Orthodox monks over the custody of the Church of Nativity at Bethlehem, it is not known as to how this dispute was resolved after the war. The claims and counter claims by France and Russia over the Church of Nativity were a pretext to settle other political and diplomatic scores against each other.

The war was a futile show down in which thousands of men of the belligerent countries perished, mostly because of disease and lack of sanitation. Florence Nightingale, the British nurse rendered selfless service to the sick and wounded soldiers during this war and earned recognition and respect to the nursing profession.

In military terms, the war was a blundering and needlessly costly affair. The commanders on both sides proved to be inefficient and corrupt squandering lives of their soldiers in senseless engagements. One of the tragic incidents in the Battle of Balaklava inspired Alfred Tennyson, the famous British poet to pen the epic poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade". 

The Crimean War holds lessons for the modern age. It shows the futility of using religious issues for political purpose which could lead to conflicts and bloodshed which should be avoided by right thinking people and communities. Let the message of peace of Christmas prevail among the communities and nations.

Dr Eugene D`Souza - Archives:

Dr Eugene D'Souza, Mumbai
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Comment on this article


    Mon, Jul 27 2009

    After a long gap I visited the and got a chance to read this superb and inavariably informative article by Dr. Eugene D''souza. Whenever I read his write ups I not only get enlightened on the topic covered therein but also feel the satisfaction that I have gained a new knowledge on a wholly new subject. I think Dr. Eugene D''souza is one of the best writers and researchers with the I hope readers like me will get to read his articles perpetually.

  • Thomas Dsouza, gorigudda/Israle

    Fri, Dec 26 2008

    20th december i went bethlem.its really lucky to see holy place in my life.i am proud that i am christain.

  • oliver, mangalore

    Wed, Dec 24 2008

    nice article eugene, with SAUDI money flowing in to plaestinian muslims , its sad UNO s Jerusalem an international city !!if some one really reads Bible one will wonder where muslims came in between jews and christians

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