There’s nothing like Easter to show the complexity of Middle Eastern religious affairs. When you start looking at this part of the year, it soon becomes apparent why there are so many tensions.
And it’s not just the usual Jews versus Muslims stuff that we usually associate with the Holy Land. Sometimes it’s Christian against Christian.
But let’s begin with the Jews, since in a way, their beliefs have a knock-on effect. It’s their celebration of Passover that affects the Christian Easter. Passover celebrates the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the sparing of their first-born children from the final plague inflicted by God. Passover dates are fixed by a lunar calendar, and hence shift from year to year.
The cross-over with Christianity is because The Last Supper is noted in some Biblical sources as occurring on the night of the Passover feast. The chronology after that therefore pins Christian Easter to Passover with a similar reference to the lunar cycle and the vernal equinox. Hence the movement of Easter between March and April each year.
But then you get disagreement between the Orthodox and the Latin churches as to how this works. The Latin churches use a fixed date (March 21) for equinox and the modern Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox churches use a shifting date for equinox based upon actual lunar observations and still adhere to the old Julian calendar.
This means that the Orthodox and Latin churches don’t often celebrate Easter based upon the same weekend. And that’s only the start of the disagreements. The various strains of Orthodoxy don’t always see eye-to-eye either.
In the Jerusalem of the 18th and 19th centuries there was little love lost between these two opposing Christian forces of the Western and Eastern churches. Each side had been granted control of some elements of the Holy shrines, with the most important being the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This series of chapels and alters is said to be erected over the sites of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Pilgrimage here was a big deal, especially to the Russians, and there was no love lost between the various Orthodox and Latin church communities that were responsible for the site. Squabbles over who got to erect what statue where, who got to fix the roof or other minor quibbles could and did end in physical violence.
Even the Crimean War can be traced, via a kind of butterfly effect, to a dispute over who got the keys to the door. An early instance of Europe’s great powers getting drawn into conflict over a question of Middle Eastern resources!
The worst instances were when Catholic and Orthodox Easters coincided. Which groups got to celebrate mass first was a situation of great tension, with thousands of impassioned pilgrims descending in a small area at once, some of the armed. Injuries and even deaths did occur.
Even as recently as 2008 there were clashes and punch-ups around the Holy Sepulchre, this time between Greek and Armenian Orthodox followers. The groups of monks and worshippers had to be broken up by Israeli riot police.
Small wonder then that the ethno-religiously-based conflicts of the Middle East are so intractable. If even the adherents of one religion like to knock each other about, solving the bigger issues seems like a heavy cross to bear.