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Holy Sepulchre and Muslim Custodian

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    Posted: 04 April 2005 at 7:10pm

Every day at 4 a.m., Wajeeh Nuseibeh walks through the walled Old City of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest shrine in Christendom. Most Christians believe it is the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus.

He inherited the job from his father and grandfather, part of a chain stretching back more than 1,300 years. But surprisingly for the doorkeeper of the site of the Crucifixion, Nuseibeh, 55, like his ancestors, is a Muslim.

The Holy Sepulchre is a vast warren of chapels, tunnels and caves with pieces of church architecture dating back to the fourth century and spanning a broad range of traditions from the Westernized cathedral of the Catholics to the Eastern brass and icons of the Orthodox churches. It houses the final stations on the Via Dolorosa - the journey of Jesus to his crucifixion - and attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and sightseers every year.

The church is jealously managed by five competing and often warring Christian denominations. Sometimes the tensions over the right to clean or pray in an area of the church spills over into violence.

Nuseibeh's family has helped keep the peace between them since Caliph Omar Ibn Kattab first conquered Jerusalem for the Muslims in 638. The only gap was 88 years of crusader rule in the 12th century. According to the family history, when Salah A-Din recaptured Jerusalem in 1191, he promised Richard the Lion Heart he would invite the Nuseibeh family members to resume their role as custodians. Since that time, Judeh family members, also Muslims, have been given the key for safekeeping overnight. The two families have shared the position ever since.

Once a year, the three biggest denominations - Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian - publicly renew their request to Nuseibeh.
Easter ceremony is held each year on Easter Saturday and symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. Thousands of worshippers pack into the church around the marble-clad tomb where Jesus' body was laid. The oil lamps inside the empty tomb are extinguished and a huge stone rolled across the entrance, which is then sealed shut by Greek Orthodox priests.

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