Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Those Crazy Monks!

I read an article three years ago by Terry Mattingly describing how rivalry between Orthodox and Catholic monks at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem contributed to the fiasco of that holy shrine being occupied by Palestinian fighters during the the period of the last Israeli assault upon the Intifada.

Mattingly, and Antiochan Orthodox Christian, tended to take the Orthodox version of events at face value. In this version, the Franciscan priests in the Catholic monastery not only let the PLO fighters into the church, but sent them into the spaces reserved for the Orthodox monks while keeping the Catholic spaces intact.

I gave Mattingly a pass on that. First, I would not expect a member of one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches to diss fellow Orthodox Christians. I make allowances for personal loyalty. Second, the stunt which Mattingly described the Catholic clerics pulling was exactly the sort of fruity behavior I might expect of at least some Franciscan communities.

Here's the surprising part: It's been going on for centuries!

I've just finished reading a book titled Hell Riders: the True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, which I discuss on my other site, and which begins its story in the little town of Bethlehem, where the monks apparently had continual troubles honoring the King of Peace through their example.

In fact, it was Orthodox and Catholic clergy and religious rioting at the Bethlehem Church which started the Crimean War in 1854. I'm not kidding.

Apparently, a dispute erupted between Catholic and Orthodox monks at the jointly occupied Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 1852. The Catholics placed an ornamental, silver star at the space considered the precise spot where Jesus was born, and the Orthodox monks who controlled the sanctuary had it removed. A riot broke out in which, according to reports, crucifixes and candlesticks were taken up as cudgels. Later, when the Catholics laid hands on a sanctuary key, they replaced the silver star and the rioting escalated until monks started getting killed.

Grotesque, to say the least.

The Tsar of Russia, of all people, intervened as "Protector of the Orthodox Church" and invaded the Ottoman Empire (which controlled the Holy Land at that time) with the idea of restoring order to Bethlehem and other holy sites.

This was bogus. The Tsar's real objective was Istanbul and the straits of the Bosporus, which would give the Russian Black Sea Fleet free access to the Mediterranean which it would need if Russia was to maintain military parity with France and England.

The French and English understood this, and caring not one bit for the issue of whether Orthodox or Catholic churchmen controlled the holy places of Judea, they came to the defense of the Ottoman Empire.

Except they didn't care about the Ottoman Empire, either. They largely ignored the Russian invasion force attacking Turkey through the Balkans, and instead launched a campaign against the Russian Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol. On the Crimean Peninsula. In the northern part of the Black Sea.

Thus began the Crimean War, leading to the battle of Balaklava, remembered for the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade."

Conclusion: Monks fighting in Bethlehem = "Half a league, Half a league, half a league onward..."

Mind boggling.