A locked door, a single nail driven in a stone wall and control of the keys to the run-down toilets are points of contention that could lead to the eviction of one of the oldest Christian communities from its sacred monastery.
On the roof of Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem's Old City, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Egyptian Coptics are embroiled in a territorial dispute that has been searing for centuries.
Christians believe that Holy Sepulchre is on the site where Christ was crucified and his body anointed and entombed. To be close to this hallowed ground, 25 Ethiopian monks and three nuns in their roof-top monastery are prepared to brave another winter, possibly without water, heat, lights or hope of change.
"It is winter here and very, very cold," said Tesfaye Salassie, secretary and spokesman for the Deir el-Sultan Monastery. "When it rains, the water pours into the rooms."
The Ethiopians have tried for years to get the Israeli minister of religious affairs to assist them in doing desperately needed repairs on the roofs of the single-level mud huts. Two months ago, the government rebuilt a wall that collapsed during a snow storm last year. Some of the hovels are in such disrepair, they have to be cordoned off.
"The Egyptians have made our lives very difficult here," Salassie said. "Right now, all we can do is pray to God until He brings us a solution."
All parties agree that the Ethiopians were once caretakers of a substantial portion of the interior of Holy Sepulchre. In 1838, a plague ravaged the Ethiopian monastic community. The Egyptian Coptics took over the keys to the passageway leading to the Ethiopians' two small chapels and to the main entrance of Holy Sepulchre. By the time replacements arrived from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the Coptics had settled in and refused to return the keys to the Ethiopians.
When the Coptics took control of the Ethiopian chapels, they had the blessings and full support of the ruling Turkish authority. Over the years, the Ethiopian rights continued to be usurped by the Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian and Russian churches. Today, other Christian communities in Holy Sepulchre have in their possession books that are bound in parchment with Ge'ez inscriptions, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Church.
"The monastery of Deir el-Sultan, which contains two churches with the two keys, are all Coptic property," said Coptic Archbishop Anba Abraham. "The Coptics accepted the Ethiopian monks as guests and they occupied the monastery without the churches. As their numbers increased, they occupied the two churches with the help of the Israeli politicians."
The Ethiopians have a recorded historical presence in Jerusalem dating to the 4th century. The monks said that Queen Helena of Rome gave them the keys to Holy Sepulchre. After the mysterious 1838 plague, the Coptics had charge of burning the Ethiopian libraries, deeds and other important documents, which they believed were contaminated.
The few remaining monks were expelled from the church. Those who would not leave peacefully were removed forcibly in chains and banished to the roof of Holy Sepulchre, according to the Ethiopians. The monks and nuns built Deir el-Sultan by hand with water and soil collected from the Kidron Valley nearly a mile away.
To quell future property disputes, the Turkish authorities drafted in 1863 a rule called "The Status Quo of the Holy Places." The rule prohibits any changes in designated religious sites without permission of the government.
If the rule is violated, the breaching party could lose all rights to the property in question. The Status Quo prohibits simple renovations. Removal of fallen debris from the decaying ceiling, even sweeping, has to be done in the dark or the Ethiopians risk being reported to the authorities by their Christian neighbors.
"It is the government's position to keep the Status Quo going and the monastery of Deir el-Sultan is part of the Status Quo," said Uri Mor, director of Christian Affairs in Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs. "We have sent engineers and architects to repair the huts, but the Ethiopians themselves opposed it."
Mor also said that the Israeli government and the former Ethiopian government devised a plan that called for the monks to vacate the monastery while the electrical system is upgraded and the roofs repaired. The monks prefer that the entire structure be replaced with new quarters. If the renovations must be done, they hope the work can be done without having to relocate temporarily. The Ethiopians have refused to leave for fear of not being allowed to return to the sacred site after renovations are completed.
An Ethiopian monk said that he feels as though their presence at Holy Sepulchre represents black people from all of the world. Should they lose their few remaining rights there, he believes that black people will never again have the opportunity to be a part of the most sacred place on earth among Christians.
"All the Christian churches pride themselves on the foothold they have in Jerusalem," said Ephraim Isaac, director of Semitic Studies in Princeton, N.J. "I think it should be a matter of pride for all Africans and African Americans that there is an ancient African foothold in the Holy Land."