During this festive time when millions of Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus, our eyes turn toward Christianity’s holiest sites. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the site where Jesus is said to have been born, captures the imagination on Christmas Day. A few miles away, in Jerusalem, stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Christian tradition, it is located on the site where Jesus was crucified and where his tomb stood empty after his resurrection.
Every morning an Arab Muslim man holding a large iron key walks through the narrow streets of old Jerusalem to open the church and does the same in the evening to lock it. This has been going on for centuries, the key being passed from father to son for hundreds of years.
ow did a Muslim family become the protectorate of Christianity’s holiest site? This question becomes even more intriguing given the religious conflicts that marred the region throughout those hundreds of years, conflicts which led to the conversion of grand churches into mosques and grand mosques into churches. However, despite more than 1,100 years of Muslim rule over Jerusalem, no ruler ever dared to convert the Church of the Holy Sepulchre into a mosque. Let me share the intriguing backstory with you.
Going back in time to the seventh century, the emerging Muslim Empire had just defeated the Christian Roman Empire in the Levant at the Battle of Yarmouk (in current-day Jordan). The writing was on the wall, Jerusalem was going to fall to the Muslims. The Roman patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophronius, a man in his seventies known for being a scholar and an honorable gentleman. On the Muslim side, the empire was ruled by Caliph Umar, a man in his forties known as a paragon of honor and humility.
The Muslim forces had Jerusalem surrounded. However, they were under strict orders from Umar not to attack and spill blood in the holy city. Sophronius, faced with the knowledge that Jerusalem was about to fall, sent a letter to the commander of the Muslim forces. Sophronius had heard about Umar’s honorable character and stated that he would not turn the city over to anyone except Umar in person. Umar, honoring his request, accepted the terms of the patriarch and traveled to Jerusalem.
What followed was an iconic interaction between the two honorable men in February of AD 638. When they met, it was prayer time in the Islamic faith. Sophronius showed the ultimate respect to Umar by offering to let him pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Umar politely declined the invitation and walked to an open area close to the church to perform the prayer.
The patriarch was bewildered and asked the caliph about it after the prayer. Umar explained that if he had prayed in the church, some overzealous Muslims may someday in the future use the rationale that the first site in Jerusalem where Umar prayed should be converted into a mosque. Based on Umar’s stand that day, no Muslim ruler of Palestine would ever transgress that principle, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has forever been defended by Muslims.
Grypeou, Swanson, and Thomas, in their book "The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam," wrote, “The seventy-eight year-old Patriarch must have been impressed by the humility of the forty-six year-old warrior and caliph.” The patriarch was so impressed by Umar’s decision not to pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that day that he gifted him the keys to the church. Umar gave the keys to a local Muslim Palestinian family (the Nussaiba family) with strict orders to protect the church.
The crusaders invaded Jerusalem in AD 1099 and proceeded to desecrate Muslim and Jewish holy sites. When the Muslim commander Saladin recaptured the city from the crusaders in AD 1187, he came under pressure by some Muslim zealots to exact revenge and convert the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to a mosque. Saladin refused and re-affirmed his commitment to the pledge made by Umar 549 years earlier that Muslims would protect this holy Christian site. He involved another Arab Muslim family (the Al-Goudia family) to work together with the Nussaiba family as custodians of the church. To this date, the descendants of these two families see it as their historic duty and honor to watch over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to open and close it every day.
Saleem Abdulrauf is a neurosurgeon and founding chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at St. Louis University.