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The key to Jerusalem church: How Muslims take care of it

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The key to Jerusalem church: How Muslims take care of it
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Too few are ignorant of the sanctity of Jerusalem to Muslims and Christians, when Jews hold control over the area now. For Christians, the most venerated part of the place, and piece of history, in Jerusalem is the Church of Holy Sepulchre, a church in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. According to tradition, the two holiest sites in Christianity are situated there: one, the place where Jesus was crucified, known as Calvary or Golgotha, and two, Jesus's empty tomb where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.

But few may know one of the most striking pieces of history of the church: its key – the physical one. The key to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, had been held by a Muslim family, almost for 5 centuries. It is the symbol of religious tolerance and co-existence in Palestine between Muslims and Christians. Currently it is Adeeb Joudeh, the family head who carries with him the 500 year-old cast iron key, which is 12 inches long, with a triangular metal handle and a square end. The oldest one that dates back to 850 years has been damaged. Thus every day at sunset, Adeeb makes his way through the stone alleyways of Jerusalam's walled Old City cradling the ancient key to the church.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the place believed to be where Jesus was crucified and burried, is the Holy place for various Christian denominations. Thousands of believers throng to the site but few are aware of Joudeh’s significance and the importance of the Muslim role in the safety and security of this holy place.

Joudeh’s family had been keeping the key in their protection for generations and he has exhibited the pictures of his grandfather and great grand-father who once held this sacred task. The historic agreement of bestowing upon his family this task is written on parchment and signed in golden ink which dates back to 1517.

This task was bestowed to Joudeh's ancestors as a way of maintaining a neutral guardian of the Holy Sepulcher Church, and he learned the obligations and responsibilities of guarding the key from his father, just as he will pass it on to his son. Along with the keys, they are passing to the next generations the way to respect other religions. This agreement between Joudeh's Muslim ancestors and the Christians has strengthened the tolerance and cooperation between the religions.

When the second Caliph of Islamic empire Umar ibn Khattab conquered Jerusalem, 1400 years ago he took over the keys of Jerusalem from Patriarch Sophronius but entrusted the security and safety to Christians. To the family of Joudeh, it is their obligation to keep the history alive.

Even though Joudeh is in charge of protecting and holding the key, it is another Muslim family who opens the door everybody and allows the faithful to enter the church. Wajeeh Nuseibeh is the member of that family responsible to perform that task without any break.

Every day early morning, Nuseibeh arrives at the church and takes the key from Joudeh, who climbs a small wooden ladder to unlock the top lock. Then he steps off the ladder to unlock the lower lock. The church is open to visitors. The entire process is repeated in reverse in the evening to lock the doors of the Church.

“I started learning this when I was eight years old. It’s handed down from father to son,” said Joudeh. “I have been doing this for 30 years and I feel that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is my second home.”

Currently the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church, where tensions often run high over control of its various sectors.

A bit of significant history before all this can be added here: Salahaddin Ayyubi, popularly known in the West as Saladin, had earned the respect of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Even after defeating the crusaders and recapturing Jerusalem in 1187, and despite the destruction of several monuments and symbols in the city, Saladin did not shed the blood of Christians in Jerusalem. He granted all Christians from foreign lands safe departure and allowed them to return to their respective countries with their property. He found the male guardians for Christian women to ensure that they were provided protection and shelter on their return journeys. He allowed the Eastern Christians to stay and reinstated the right of every Jew to visit and resettle in Jerusalem. He conquered Jerusalem on a Saturday and ordered that the Church be open on Sunday for services.

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