Jerusalem, the in-between city

JERUSALEM -- Hidden in the maze of passageways and shrines that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the Chapel of St. Nicodemus.

In this lesser-known sanctuary there is an electric light.

The intricate details of life in Jerusalem's holiest Christian site are governed by a Turkish "Status Quo" declaration from 1852, which tells the Roman Catholics, Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Jacobites and Ethiopians what they can and can't do in their corners of the church. But tensions remain, along with scores of unanswered questions.

So Daniel Rossing knew he was in trouble when his telephone rang at Israel's Ministry for Religious Affairs and a caller said that the light in St. Nicodemus chapel had burned out. He quickly confirmed that both the Syrians and Armenians were claiming the right to do this simple maintenance task. Leaders on both sides warned him: We will fix the light in the morning.

"I had to do something -- fast," the veteran diplomat told a pack of journalists, during a recent walking tour of the Old City.

A reporter called out: "So, how many patriarchs does it take to change a light bulb?"

"No, no, that's not the point," said Rossing. "Let me finish."

Before dawn, Rossing slipped into the church and, when no one was watching, did what he had to do. Then he called the Syrian Orthodox bishop and, raising his voice in mock anger, told him that he had dragged himself out of bed to inspect the Chapel of St. Nicodemus only to find that the light was working just fine. Then he called the office of the Armenian patriarch and yelled exactly the same message.

Did Rossing change the bulb? In Jerusalem, it's best not to answer this kind of question.

"Yes, it was a game," said Rossing, who now serves as director of the Jerusalem Foundation's Christian Communities desk. "But there are a lot of dangerous conflicts and divisions in this city. ... In the end, I will always advocate that people learn how to play games, if they possible can."

Jerusalem is an ancient city with modern problems and a modern city with ancient problems. It is a Jewish city, a Christian city and a Muslim city. Everyone is part of a majority group, when viewed from one perspective, and a minority group, when viewed from another perspective. Police regularly encounter people claiming to be Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Mohammed or all of the above. The experts call this "Jerusalem syndrome."

The bottom line, said Rossing, is that Jerusalem is stuck at "a point of confusion somewhere between heaven and earth."

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a perfect example. Many pilgrims are disappointed when they enter and discover that, instead of one unified sanctuary, the church is like a liturgical chess board, on which players representing many church traditions move in intricate patterns that symbolize ancient divisions as well as common roots. Visitors expect to find perfection. Instead, they find the human as well as the holy.

"Holy Sepulcher isn't perfect. But it's real," said Rossing. "The same thing is true of Jerusalem. Many of this city's problems have no solution. ... We have to live in the in-between-ness of this city. Jerusalem is a laboratory of the in-between."

Rossing told a dozen true-life parables that made the same point. For example, an Eastern Orthodox church once received a donation to add two ornate domes, topped with Byzantine crosses. The problem was that this sanctuary was across the street from an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Jews. When the Jews looked up, to pray toward the Temple Mount, they could not avoid seeing these crosses. This was awkward, to say the least.

Israeli officials knew they could not require the Christians to remove the crosses. So Rossing asked them to turn the crosses -- a one-quarter turn. For the Jews across the street, the crossbeams vanished. All they saw were poles pointing up.

"Jerusalem is not a city that needs, and I know I am using loaded, provocative language, final solutions to these kinds of problems," said Rossing. "We have to take little steps. We have to learn to turn the crosses 90 degrees."