The Times (London), UK
March 30, 2013 Saturday
Edition 1; Ireland


Muslim family still proud to hold key for Christian church

Sheera Frenkel



For every morning of the past 40 years, Wajeeh Nuseibeh has climbed
the same rickety wooden ladder to open the doors to the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre, the most revered site in Christendom.

In a ritual passed down through the centuries by Nuseibeh men, he raps
the door three times before pulling out a 12-inch iron key to unlock
the gates of the church, the place where Christ was crucified, buried
and resurrected.

However, as tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims gathered at Holy
Sepulchre yesterday to mark Easter, few would know that the family
charged with such an important ritual is actually Muslim.

His ancestors were chosen for their long service and ability to
navigate the sometimes violent rivalries between the various Christian
sects represented in the church.

"I am the custodian of the key of the Holy Sepulchre," said Mr
Nuseibeh, 62, as worshippers made their way up the Via Dolorosa
through Jerusalem's Old City to mark Good Friday.

"I see these people and I feel how important the task is, how good it
is that my family has held the tradition all these years. I am proud
that my family will continue to hold this honour."

This year, Mr Nuseibeh will pass the responsibility as key holder over
to his son, 30-year-old Obedya Nuseibeh who works by day as a
hairdresser in Jerusalem.

After the Easter festival he will begin to take over responsibility
for his father's gate-keeping, arriving at the Church at 4am to open
the doors, and at 8pm to lock them shut.

"I'm nervous I won't do it correctly at first, there is a lot of
ritual to remember. But I've been watching my father do this for
years, and I think I know it very well," said Obedya. "My father
advised me to stay neutral, to remember this is an important, historic
role."

Mr Nuseibeh senior said it was not always easy to stay out of Church
politics, especially as the various Christian factions that worship in
the church have been known to come to blows over the right to clean a
particular window or sweep a set of stairs.

In 2008, on Orthodox Palm Sunday, priests from the Armenian and Greek
denominations scuffled after a priest was asked to move positions near
the tomb of Jesus. Police were called to break up the fight, as the
priests lashed out at each other with palm fronds.

During British Mandate rule in Palestine, troops with fixed bayonets
sometimes had to separate the Christian sects who jealously protected
their sections of the church.

"Some people see it is as ironic that a Muslim family holds the key to
the church. But our ancestors, in their wisdom, saw this was the only
way to keep the peace," he said.

The Nuseibeh family was first made custodians of the key when Caliph
Umar Ibn Khattab first conquered Jerusalem in 638AD.

The only gap in the family tradition was during the 88 years of
Crusader rule in the 12th century, which ended in 1187 when Saladin
recaptured Jerusalem and promised Richard the Lionheart that he would
restore the Nuseibehs as the custodians of the key. Since then, the
three largest denominations in the church - Greek Orthodox, Roman
Catholic and Armenian - hold an annual ceremony where they renew their
request to the Nuseibehs to be "custodian and doorkeeper" of the
church, a title that the family proudly places on its business cards.

"I maybe didn't take the tradition so seriously when it was first
given to me by my father," said Wajeeh Nuseibeh, who said he was 22
years old when he began training in his duties. "I grew to love it."
He said he was relinquishing his duties only after having a second
heart attack late last year.

"I won't live for ever and I have to make sure to pass down the
tradition," he said. "That is the most important thing."

Yesterday, as the square in front of the church filled with pilgrims,
he reflected that he had had a "good run". "Things have changed so
much since I took this job. Pilgrims used to crawl to the church on
the knees to show their reverence," he said.

"Now they walk up looking at the church through their iPhone cameras,
and post the photos to Facebook before they've even set foot in the
church. It's a new generation, it's very different."

But he is glad that one thing has stayed the same.

"For as long as there are Nuseibehs we will hold the key," he said.