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2 Muslim families work together to keep open site where Jesus was crucified, buried

JERUSALEM—For centuries, Christian factions in this divided holy city have battled for control of their most sacred site: the church that stands where they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.

Rivalries over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have sparked brawls, riots and even a 19th-century war. Nothing is too small to fight about, not even a key.

Under an 800-year-old peace agreement, two Muslim men share the power to open and close the church's 3-ton wooden doors. One holds the key; the other opens the door. Neither can agree on who plays the more important role.

The spat is one tiny reflection of the complex and deep-rooted religious, political and tribal divisions that have split this holy city for centuries.

To 75-year-old Abed Joudeh, whose family has held the key for centuries, his rival is nothing more than a porter who'd have nothing to do without the key.

To 55-year-old Wajeeh Nuseibeh, the Joudehs are basically assistants who are there to provide his family members with the tools to do their job.

"It's like having a million dollars and not being able to spend a single cent," Nuseibeh said of the Joudeh family.

Of the Nuseibeh clan, Joudeh said: "You are doorkeepers. You can't open the door until I give you the key to open it."

Why and how these families were chosen remains shrouded in mystery.

According to Nuseibeh, his family was made the church gatekeeper when Muslims first took control of Jerusalem in the seventh century and agreed to protect the city's Christian holy sites. Christian crusaders chased them from Jerusalem in 1099, but the family returned 88 years later alongside the legendary Muslim warrior Salah al-Din.

It was then, both men say, that the duties of opening and closing the church were split between the Nuseibehs and the Joudehs.

Nuseibeh describes it as an act of charity for the poor Joudeh family.

Joudeh sees it as beneath his family's dignity to climb the wooden ladder to unlock and open the massive doors.

Whatever the case, the two families have shared the duties ever since.

Like the responsibility of opening the doors, the church is itself divided.

Six different groups look after various sections. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Catholic churches divide responsibilities for maintaining and guarding the church's major sites: the spot where Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he was buried. Other parts of the church are under the control of the Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches.

In an effort to calm tensions more than 150 years ago, the Ottoman rulers imposed an uneasy truce that froze the divisions and prevented anyone from changing anything. For that reason, a small wooden ladder has remained on a ledge untouched above the church entrance ever since.

Two years ago, a tussle broke out when a Greek Orthodox worshipper accused Roman Catholic Franciscans of disrespecting a procession by leaving a church door open. In 2002, nearly a dozen monks were injured in fighting after Ethiopians took offense when an Egyptian Coptic monk moved a rooftop chair into the shade, a step viewed as an aggressive attempt to seize more space.

Through it all, the two Muslim families have helped to maintain the uneasy balance of power by keeping the issue of who controls the front door off the table.

For elaborate door-opening ceremonies, such as those during the church's Easter celebrations, the two men play a personal role, Joudeh bringing the key to the church and Nuseibeh using it to open the two iron spring locks. But most days the job is done by a young Palestinian whom the families hired to open and close the church with a copy of the original key.

Still, Nuseibeh and Joudeh proudly show off photographs of themselves meeting Pope John Paul II, standing with kings and greeting dignitaries from around the world.

Nuseibeh's house is packed with gifts, medals and official decrees that he plans to put in a family museum he hopes to open.

In his second-story apartment, Joudeh keeps what he says is the original key from the 11th century in a locked bedroom drawer.

These days, he slips it into his coat pocket and takes it with him to the church, where he sits on a wooden bench next to the door, fingering his prayer beads and watching the endless stream of Christian pilgrims.

Nuseibeh sits by his side, but jumps up often to guide visitors while hardly mentioning his own role at the church.

If the two disagree on who plays the more crucial role, both see the honor in being descendents of the Muslim families that have looked after the Christian site for centuries.

"We feel like it's a way to make friendship with everybody," Nuseibeh said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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