Centuries-old Holy City Cellar at Heart of Byzantine Battle

January 30, 2010

JERUSALEM, Jan 28, 2010 (AFP) — An Arab-Israeli shopkeeper is locked in a Byzantine battle with the Coptic Church over an ancient Jerusalem cellar, in a saga involving Christianity’s holiest site and a 12th century Muslim general.

Lawyers on both sides expect authorities to decide soon whether the disputed basement adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is sacred or not, and whether the Egyptian Christians or the Israeli Muslim can claim ownership.

The legal battle over the centuries-old vaulted stone cellar has been festering for 14 years in the heart of the Holy City, a flashpoint of political and religious conflict.

It has as many twists and turns as the Old City, a maze of narrow streets and intrigue, and features top Middle East political players.

Antonios al-Orshaleme, general secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, insists the basement is holy ground and was once part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered by most Christians as the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.

Orshaleme says the vast cellar, which runs under both the patriarchate and the grocery store, had been a church at least as long as the Holy Sepulchre, but remains vague as to when it was last used as such.

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