The Coptic Orthodox monastery of Deir as-Sultan in Jerusalem is the scene of conflict, as Ethiopian guest monks attempt to usurp it
Within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, lies Deir as-Sultan, literally Monastery of the Sultan, a Coptic monastery built by Constantine the Great in 335, and granted to the Coptic Church in the 7th century by the Ummayad Sultan Abdel-Malek Bin Marwan (684 – 705); hence its name of Deir as-Sultan. In the 12th century, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, famous as Saladdin, confirmed its ownership by the Coptic Church, a fact that remained uncontested till modern times when Ethiopian guest monks made attempts to seize it.
Court ruling not executed
The monastery stretches some 1800 square metres over the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, is part of the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem, and includes a passageway that leads directly down into the church of the Holy Sepulchre below. The centre of the monastery’s courtyard is dominated by the dome of the church of St Helena; on the southeast corner are two old churches: one consecrated in the name of the Archangel Michael and the other in the name of the Four Incorporeal Creatures. The eastern side hosts monk cells and a room for the director of the monastery, a Coptic monk.
The monastery has been the subject of conflict since April 1970 when Ethiopian guest monks hosted by the Copts at the monastery took advantage of the fact that the Copts were away celebrating Mass on the Feast of the Resurrection, changed the locks to the stairs connecting the monastery to the church below, and practically seized the monastery. This was done by approval of the Israeli government, and under protection of the Israeli military. At the time, Egypt and Israel were at war.
The Coptic Metropolitan of Jerusalem directly took the case to court. On 16 March 1971 the Supreme Court in Israel ruled in favour of the Coptic Church, unanimously deciding that the keys of the passageway and the two monastery churches should be handed to the Copts. To date, however, and despite numerous official complaints and reports by the Copts, the Israeli government has refrained form executing the court order.
The story of the Ethiopian monks goes back in history to 1654 when a group of them sought temporary refuge with the Coptic Church, since their premises had been moved to the custody of the Greek and Armenian Churches in Jerusalem, because the Ethiopian Church had not been able to pay taxes. The Copts accepted the Ethiopians and gave them lodgings at Deir as-Sultan from where they were never driven away but remained as guests. Even when the Coptic Church had to renovate the monastery in 1820 and thus evicted its inhabitants, the Ethiopians were again allowed in as guests when the place was rendered habitable in 1840. At the time, the Ethiopian Church was part of the Coptic Church.
The year 1850 witnessed the start of what was to become an interminable battle by the Ethiopian monks to seize the monastery. In every one of these numerous attempts, however, the Copts proved beyond doubt their claim to the monastery, and were thus empowered to it by the Jerusalem authorities. That is, until April 1970.
Last week, the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Holy Land issued a statement regarding recent incidents at Deir as-Sultan.
The statement began with a description of the monastery, its history, and the history of the Coptic-Ethiopian conflict regarding it. It then proceeded to explain that on 22 September 2017, a stone fell from the roof of the church of the Archangel Michael at the monastery. This led the authorities of Jerusalem municipality to close the church until the damage could be fixed. According to the statement, all survey of the site and negotiations on repairing the damage were conducted without informing the Coptic Church in its capacity as the owner. The Coptic Church officially expressed its disfavour in writing to the authorities concerned, and offered to do the necessary repairs and shoulder their expenses. This offer, however, was rejected and the Israeli government said it would—as an impartial party—do the repairs. The Coptic Church accepted conditionally.
On the evening of Thursday 19 October, the government’s construction engineer attempted to bring equipment into the monastery to do the repairs. The Coptic Church was not informed beforehand. This drove the Coptic monks, deacons, and workers at the monastery to stage a peaceful protest at the gate of the monastery, and to prevent any equipment form being taken inside. Heading the protest was Anba Antonius, the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem.
The statement said that the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv intervened, and the repairs were postponed subject to prior coordination with the Coptic Church. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the statement said, strongly supported the Coptic Church in its demand to reclaim the Coptic historical monument, seeing that Deir as-Sultan is heritage that concerns Egypt in its entirety, not merely its Copts.
25 October 2017