An annual Christmas cleaning ritual at the site where Jesus was said to be born deteriorated into a mass brawl Wednesday when rival monks began attacking each other with broomsticks, shouts and fists.
The fight, among priests and monks from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations, took place at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s holiest churches. The monks were preparing the church for the upcoming Orthodox Christmas celebrations, celebrated in early January, and cleaning up from the Western Christian Christmas, celebrated on Dec. 25.
The Orthodox and Armenian denominations, along with the Latin denomination, jointly administer the church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago in a manger after Mary and Joseph were turned away at an inn.
The church’s strong religious and historical significance have created tension among the three sects, with each closely guarding their own turf.
Their tenuous shareholder agreement dictates that each sect must approve any changes, no matter how minor, made to the holy site.
Renovations tentatively planned for next year to replace the church’s leaky roof will mark the first major repairs in 150 years. Negotiations for those repairs have gone on for years, long delayed by disagreement over who would pay.
The brawl that erupted on Wednesday ended when club-wielding Palestinian police stormed into the church.
No one was seriously injured in the fight, and it remains to be seen what exactly sparked this particular outburst.
“No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God,” said Bethlehem police Lt.-Col. Khaled al-Tamimi, who also noted that order was quickly restored.
This year’s cleaning ritual at the church is not the first that has gone off with incident. In 2007, seven priests were injured in a post-Christmas cleaning fight.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.