A glimpse inside Christ’s burial place

For the first time in almost 2,000 years, scientists have examined Jesus’s tomb; what they have found underlines the truth of the Gospels

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Greek renovation experts inspect Jesus’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AP)

Last week, for the first time in its history of nearly 2,000 years, the tomb (sepulchre) of Jesus was examined by archaeologists and conservationists. Never before has it been subject to scientific scrutiny. These men of science, accompanied by a group of selected priests and monks, were surprised by what they saw. Despite centuries of damp, wars and more than a dozen earthquakes, everything in the rock-cut cave chamber is still intact. It has been central to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or, as it is called by Orthodox Christians, the Church of the Anastasis (the Resurrection), since it was commissioned 1,670 years ago by Emperor Constantine a year after the Council of Nicaea.

Not only is the rough burial shelf hewn from rock in one piece, but an additional feature was noted which verifies that the holy tomb conforms to standard burial chambers of the era. Remnants of the original 6ft-high walls which had been cut into the ancient limestone quarry still stand on the bedrock. There was also a broken slab of marble protecting the burial slab on which a small cross is carved.

Equally important is how the features seen and photographed by the scientists tie in with the descriptions of Jesus’s burial and tomb in the New Testament. Fr Athanasius Macora, who looks after the Catholic interest in the church, explained: “Nothing contradicted what is described in the Gospels.”

Fr David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, described the emotion of witnessing the moment of the uncovering of the tomb by the National Technical University of Athens, using physical strength and metal ropes: “It was very moving for all of us; a real moment of reason strengthening faith. Our eyes beheld that which is written in the New Testament.”

His joy at seeing where Jesus’s body was believed to have been laid on a slab and anointed with myrrh and aloes, was amplified by Fr Christian Eeckhout of the École Biblique. He spoke movingly about how the tomb is the most sacred monument in Christendom and how the Resurrection of Jesus from it lies at the very foundation of our faith.

After 60 hours of working day and night to examine and photograph the tomb, the conservators returned the top marble slab, but added a new feature: an unobtrusive rectangular window so onlookers can view a section of its ancient limestone wall.

The conservation work on the tomb is concurrent with repairs to the Edicule (from the Latin aedicula, or “little house”), a chapel-like structure above the tomb. Originally built by the Greeks in 1810 after a fire had ripped through the church, it had to be reinforced by steel girders in 1937. Last February, safety concerns prompted Israeli police to shut down the Edicule for four hours. Within a month an agreement to begin work was signed by the churches. The fact that the details seen by the scientists in the tomb tie in with the New Testament is important in such a controversial city as Jerusalem. Although the Gospels refer to Jesus being laid on a limestone slab and “wound in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40) only tradition identifies the site as his place of burial and Resurrection. There is no map or written evidence.

An alternative location near Damascus Gate, outside the Old City walls, now known as the Garden Tomb, was established in the late 19th century by General Gordon of Khartoum. Dismissed by Catholics and Orthodox Christians who revere the site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is mostly visited by Protestants.

“There is no other site that has such a claim as weighty as that of the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” said Dan Bahat, a veteran Israeli archaeologist who has worked on sites in Jerusalem for nearly half a century. As well as the Holy Sepulchre site tying in with the topography of Calvary/Golgotha described in the Gospels, it is verified by archaeologists who dug under parts of the church last century. They confirmed that the church is built on a disused meleke limestone quarry just outside the city, which was used as a burial ground and also contained small vegetable gardens. This changed when Herod Agrippa enlarged the city in AD 41 and built walls beyond the quarry. Emperor Hadrian later erected a massive temple to Aphrodite on the site which Constantine demolished to make way for the church.

Although there has been extensive publicity on the fights and disagreements between the Christian denominations which share the church, few recognise that it is the only church in the world where six of the ancient Christian denominations – the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, the Copts, the Ethiopians and Syriac Orthodox – worship side by side.

Instead of writing about any cooperation, the emphasis has generally been on how priests and monks have periodically become embroiled in bitter disputes over territories and responsibilities, sometimes involving violence. Yet major repairs have been carried out with cooperative efforts by all six churches. Indeed, the present repairs are minor compared to the rebuilding works to the dome in the 1960s. “The work now is being carried out by the three major communities,” Fr Athanasius explained, “and the other three haven’t created any problems and have acquiesced to it.”

Exacerbating the delays to any repairs are old Ottoman laws which prevent any alterations being made. A decree governing the rights of the different churches issued by Sultan Abd al-Majid in 1852 in the lead up to the Crimean War is still in force. This freezing of territorial and other rights of the churches became entrenched in international law when it was incorporated in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. As Raymond Cohen explains in his book, Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How the Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine, the treaty confirmed “that no alterations can be made in the status quo of the Holy Places”.

While the status quo gave the Greeks, Catholics and Armenians rights of possession of specified areas, it only gave rights of usage to the other three churches. Additionally, much to the disquiet of Catholics, it confirmed that the lion’s share of the church belonged to the Greek Orthodox.

These laws mean that possession of a roof implies ownership of what is below, and financial expenditure is seen as a claim to ownership. Fr Athanasius said: “In terms of modern law, an analogy would be the example of customary law where usage [implies] a right to continue to do so, whether it be prayer times, cleaning or repairs. It is always feared that a precedent will be set.”

But disagreements between the churches are not confined to intercommunal property rights within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. No simultaneous celebration of Christ’s birth or death takes place in Jerusalem or anywhere else. While Catholics and Protestants observe Christmas and Easter on the same dates, the Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Copts keep their own calendars.

Nor are disagreements new. In the late 2nd century Celsus, a philosopher, in True Teaching, reproached the Christians for being so divided and at odds with each other: “Since they have spread to become a multitude, they split and separate and want each to have his own faction”.

Annulment chaos in the Holy Land

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A Palestinian Christian bride enters the Church of Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during her wedding celebration in the West Bank town of Bethlehem Saturday Dec. 9, 2006. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Many Arab Christians wanting to divorce resort to converting to another religion

Pope Francis has insisted that his annulment reforms are not a subversion of the Church’s teaching against divorce. But in the Middle East annulments are divorces both in intent and in effect.

Indeed, as no states in the Middle East and North Africa, apart from Turkey and Tunisia, have civil marriage and divorce laws, annulments have become an avenue of de facto divorce for Catholics. Unlike in the West, with its civil marriage and divorce laws, in the Middle East annulments have far-reaching civil consequences.

Except for exclusively Islamic states such as those found in the Gulf, all the states in the Middle East have adapted versions of the Ottoman millet system, devolving jurisdiction for family law to “recognised religious communities”. For example, Israel has granted jurisdiction to 14 different religious communities, six of which are Catholic – Latin Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic and Chaldean.

As none of the Catholic courts grants divorce, like Henry VIII, Arab Catholics often use annulments as if they were quasi-divorces, stretching the canonical rulings beyond credulity.

Although the Catholic Church makes no distinction between annulments issued in, say, New York or Rome, or in Jerusalem or Baghdad, the impact on people’s lives is very different. In the West, the Pope’s reforms are easing the way for some remarried Catholics to receive Communion, but in the Middle East, where religious laws govern marriage and divorce, annulments determine a person’s civil status as single, married or divorced. So for those Arab Catholics trapped in appalling marriages, the Pope’s streamlining of the annulment process will feel like a blessing.

Because of this, it was apposite that the first conference on the Pope’s new rulings on annulments was held in the heart of the Middle East in July. The five-day conference, “Matrimony and ad hoc Rules Governing the Tribunal Procedures”, organised by the Ecclesiastical Court of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, was held in a resort hotel on the Jordanian side of the shores of the Dead Sea.

“It was not only the first conference held on the Motu Proprio but the first that Professor Arroba Conde, its architect, attended,” explained Fr Emil Salayta, the judge of the Latin Patriarchate court in Jerusalem and president of the conference. “The 90 Catholic judges and lay lawyers for the Arab Christian courts from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Jordan who attended wanted to learn how the new laws are applied and to discuss them. There were also ecclesiastical professors from Rome.”

He added that the conference was of special interest to bishops. The new rulings allow them to make judgments themselves within their diocese rather than, as previously, cases going to another court.

In the Middle East, unless a marriage has not been consummated, an annulment is the sole way that an Arab Catholic can legally terminate a marriage and remarry. However, as certainty cannot be applied to all cases, many Arab Christians wanting to divorce resort to converting to another religion such as Islam or the Greek Orthodox Church. Some Catholics prefer this due to the difficulty of explaining to their children how, despite the marriage being voided, they are not illegitimate.

Fr Emil stressed than an annulment deals with the legal formalities of the wedding ceremony, not the reasons that provoked the breakdown in the marriage or prompted one or both of the spouses to request an end to the marriage.

“Adultery is relevant only in the early months of the marriage as it may reflect a lack of commitment of the husband or the wife when they entered the marriage. It’s the same with abortion. It’s only behaviour before the marriage and the wedding itself, not during the marriage. A ‘Declaration of Nullity’ means that a valid act of marrying did not take place, that the marriage never existed, is null and void.”

Sympathetic though the Church is to a husband or a wife whose spouse is an adulterer, or has acted violently or irresponsibly, such behaviour can seldom be used as evidence to annul a marriage. Marital intercourse and having children and grandchildren is overlooked. Even after a relationship of 50 years, a marriage can be annulled.

“Grounds have to be found that the marriage was fundamentally flawed at the outset, that it was formalised without the free and knowing consent or commitment of either the husband or the wife,” said Fr Emil.

We will have to wait until next year’s conference to see the statistics on the impact of the new annulment rulings. Whatever the answer, the situation is a vexed one. If the success rate of annulment applications is high, it will ease the lives of Arab Catholics and stop them converting to effect a divorce. Yet at the same time, it will arguably undermine the prohibition on divorce in Catholic canon law.

Why can’t we choose our own Patriarch?’

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New Custos Fr Francesco Patton, centre, takes part in a procession in Jerusalem (AP)

The Pope has appointed Franciscans to two of the most prestigious posts in the Holy Land. Neither speaks Arabic, so what’s going on?

Why has the Pope suddenly parachuted two Italian Franciscan priests into the most prestigious Catholic posts in the Holy Land? Both men are non-Arabic speaking.

On May 20, Fr Francesco Patton took over as Custos of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Last week, the Pope announced that Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who had been Custos for the past 12 years, was to be made an archbishop and apostolic administrator sede vacante of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which covers Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus.

Impressive though Fr Pizzaballa’s credentials are, the placement of a non-Arabic speaking priest to sit in the throne at the Latin Patriarchate has taken the local Arab Christians aback – especially as the election of a replacement for the retiring Patriarch Fouad Twal may take 18 months. Nearly 95 per cent of the clergy attached to the Patriarchate are either Palestinian or from neighbouring Arab lands.

Unlike the Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land has retained its international character, so the appointment, though a surprise, is not controversial. Its 285 brown-habited friars with rope belts knotted in imitation of their master, St Francis, come from 39 countries. Since the 13th century they have cared for pilgrims and maintained the Christian holy places and shrines connected to the birth, ministry and death of Jesus.

It is very different with the Patriarchate, which is run by Arabs. One senior priest told me: “With all respect to Pizzaballa, his appointment comes as a shock. Jerusalem is the mother Church, the birthplace of Christianity. We’re not like other dioceses.” He added that he and other priests hoped that an Arab would be elected as Patriarch before Christmas.

Another Latin Catholic priest, echoing some of the dissatisfaction among the clergy, said: “Why can’t we chose our own Patriarch, temporary or not? It’s not as if Jerusalem isn’t mature enough to administer its own organisation. We’re not back in the 1950s.”

Since the early 1970s, the Patriarchate, like other Holy Land churches, especially the Melkites (the Greek Catholics), the Lutherans and the Anglicans, has followed the trend to promote and empower Palestinians and other Arabs. The laity, too, have become more involved in running their churches. Michel Sabbah of Nazareth, who in 1987 became the first native Palestinian to be appointed Latin Patriarch, was a fearless advocate for Palestinian rights and an end to the occupation. His successor, Fouad Twal, a Jordanian who took over in 2008, kept a lower profile but still stood up for Palestinian rights.

The comments I heard raise the question of whether the new appointment from Rome indicates a shift away from the Arabisation in the Patriarchate and the beginning of more control from Rome. But perhaps the appointments need to be seen in a political context. Making Fr Pizzaballa the temporary occupant of the Patriarchal throne may reflect the urgency of having a powerful man who can negotiate with the Israeli authorities in the face of more unsolved arson and “price tag” attacks on churches.

Not only is Israel expanding its settlements in and around Jerusalem, but there have been more attacks on churches and other Christian holy sites. Last year a fire ripped through the famous Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee, gutting the roof and burning prayer books. Graffiti in Hebrew called for exterminating “idolaters”, an expression used by Jewish extremists for Christians. The attack was just one of dozens carried out against Christians and Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last week more extremists, shouting “You are evil,” attacked Christians during Pentecost prayers in the Room of the Last Supper.

Perhaps having two Franciscans in the top Jerusalem posts in the Patriarchate and Custody of the Holy Land will mean a more united front. Yet no matter how popular the new leader, Fr Patton, becomes, his appointment from “outside” the Jerusalem community was a surprise.

Every three years the Discretorium, the governing body, is elected with candidates from the different linguistic groups: Italian; Greek and Slavic; Spanish and Portuguese; French and German; English; and Arab and other Middle East languages. And every six years the friars vote for a new Custos in what is called a Consultation. The final choice is sent to Rome for approval. However, this year their choice was overturned and Fr Patton was sent from Rome. This was in contrast to Fr Pizzaballa’s elevation: after eight years as a member of the Jerusalem community, he had been elected by his fellow friars.

Whatever the motives of Rome, it will be fascinating to see whether there is a shift in church-state relations and a move away from the Arabisation of the churches in the Holy City – and how long it takes for Fr Pizzaballa to augment his fluent Hebrew with Arabic.

This article first appeared in the July 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

Now I only have one bodyguard

Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk received death threats when he spoke up for Turkey’s religious minorities. On a visit to London, he explains why he won’t be silenced

Despite the wide applause for Pope Francis’s political stand on refugees and poverty in America, there has been a chorus of conservatives saying that he should stick to theology. So it was reassuring for me and other admirers of this Pope to hear a positive response to a question about him.

“Yes. I like Pope Francis,” said the 63-year-old Turkish author and Nobel Prize-winner, Orhan Pamuk, when I asked him what he thought about the Argentine-born Pontiff. “I like what he says about refugees.”

Pamuk was talking to me in the back of a car going to a dinner at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival, where he spoke about his new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, and his answer heartened me for another reason.

Knowing that Pamuk had previously made sympathetic statements about Armenian Christians in Turkey, at the end of his talk in the conservatory at Blenheim Palace I had put up my hand. As he had championed Christians in Turkey, I asked, what did he think of their present situation? He quickly refuted this, saying: “No, I don’t champion Christians. I’m interested in the subject of the protection of all minorities, whatever their religion.”

Then, as fitting for the man who has written much about “the clash and interlacing of cultures”, he spoke about other minorities in Turkey, the Shia and the Alevis. Careful not to get drawn into any political arguments, he repeated a remark he made the previous night to a London audience: “I now only have one bodyguard. I used to have three.”

Security became a problem back in 2005 when he had responded to a question about freedom of expression in Turkey, saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.”

This remark, published in a Swiss newspaper, resulted in death threats against Pamuk, and an Istanbul state prosecutor accusing him of the crime of “public denigration of Turkish identity.” Pamuk was forced to flee the country. The following year the charges were dropped and he returned to his home looking over the Bosphorus, the Old City, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Here, apart from the four months each year when he teaches at Columbia University in New York, he writes for 10 hours a day.

Later, over pre-dinner drinks, Pamuk spoke on a subject that inspires his writing: the tension between East/West traditions, as evidenced by the multinational, cosmopolitan population of his beloved Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century, which has grown into a city of 15 million people. “It was then a city of only a million people and only half the population was of Turkish descent,” Pamuk said. “There were Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and other Christians. Now Christians make up less than one per cent.”

The expansion of the city, along with the demographic upheaval, is a theme in his new novel, which portrays the life of an Anatolian yoghurt and boza seller in Istanbul.

As in Pamuk’s other novels, threads running through it draw attention to the effects of modernisation and secularism in the contemporary world. Among the depressing news coming from the Middle East about Christians, there was a small triumph for Arab Christians in Israel.

For the past month the country’s 47 Christian schools, along with their 33,000 pupils and teachers, have been striking due to what they called discriminatory and crippling government budget cuts. On Sunday, the government yielded. The strike not only achieved funding and concessions for the schools but fame for the achievements of the schools.

As the strike was widely covered by the international media, the whole world now knows that the Christian schools, the majority of which are Catholic, achieve the best grades in the whole of Israel.

Pupils outperform their counterparts in the Jewish and the state schools. Close to 95 per cent attain a matriculation certificate – a rate unmatched by other schools. Christian school graduates outnumbered Jews, Muslims and Druze enrolling in universities in 2012 by 10 per cent.

Among the distinguished ex-pupils of the Catholic schools in Nazareth and Haifa are professors, physicians, engineers, judges, lawyers and doctors.

One of the best known is Johny Srouji, the most senior Israeli in the global high-tech industry who is now a vice president of Hardware Technologies in Apple in the United States. The high standards are amazing when you remember that the Christian Arab community in Israel, which numbers just 120,000 people, is a minority within the wider Arab minority, among a total population of some 8,400,000.

They have achieved this excellence in a country where the majority are Jewish, in a nation and culture renowned for their intellectual achievements. Now, because of the strike, the world knows that the Arab Christians have created the equivalent of the Eton of the East.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15)

I wouldn’t dip a finger in the River Jordan

Tradition versus modernity. Health versus religious ritual. The dichotomy between these topics was again raised this week after Princess Charlotte’s christening. Traditionally the holy water that is poured into the ornate silver gilt lily font to anoint royal foreheads comes from the River Jordan. Even though Jordanian spokesmen assure everyone that the holy water is safe and hygienic, little would induce me to put a finger in it. The quality of the water has improved in recent years but it still contains sewage, agricultural and fish farming runoff and pesticides.

Perhaps, though, faith is stronger than my “germ-free” scientific beliefs. Each year around 300,000 pilgrims visit Yasr al-Yahud on the Palestinian side of the river, and about 100,000 at BethanyBeyond-the-Jordan and there have been no reports of illness. Even after the feast of the Epiphany each January, when huge crowds submerge themselves in the holy waters, there have been no reports of post-visit health troubles. When I last stood on the edge of this murky stream of water at Yasr al-Yahud, near Jericho, I saw hundreds of the faithful in billowing white robes dunk themselves in the waters, re-enacting the baptism of Jesus in the muddy river. Others just filled up bottles with water. I even saw some drink it. Others took their precious relic home to enjoy later or just keep as a holy souvenir. Many bottles will await future christenings.

Of course, when John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the river it was a fastflowing, fresh water source. Today, as most of it is diverted to agriculture and other purposes by Jordan and Israel, the water in the Jordan moves sluggishly to the Dead Sea. Polluted though the water is, there is no danger that the pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Cyprus and Romania who plunge into the river will drown. The reduced water level allows anyone to casually wade across from the opposite bank, which is part of the state of Jordan. When the next royal christening takes place, the water quality will have improved. By chance, Princess Charlotte’s ritual with the Jordan water took place just a week after EcoPeace (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East) released a master plan, funded by the European Union, to revive the quality of the river’s water. Plans include modern sewage treatment systems on the Jordanian side and improved agricultural methods on the Palestinian side. EcoPeace also hopes to persuade the Israel Water Authority to literally turn on the taps, that is, increase the volume of water from the Sea of Galilee.

Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace, a lawyer by profession, who has the reputation of being a local environmental hero, is already showing his skill by working across borders with Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists. As well as the revival plan for the river, the royal christening also coincided with the announcement that Unesco has designated one of the two rival baptism sites on the Jordan as a World Heritage Site. It is Al Maghtas in Jordan – known also as Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan – which hosts around 100,000 visitors a year.

Pope Francis, during his 2014 visit to the Middle East, much to the delight of the Jordanians, said prayers at the baptism site. He was the third pope to have made a pilgrimage there. St John Paul II visited in March 2000, followed by Benedict XVI in May 2009. Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan also had a boost in 2010 when Rupert Murdoch and his then wife, Wendi, had their two daughters christened there. Tony Blair was a godfather, as was Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman was a godmother. Following tradition all the guests wore white, but there were no reports of them entering the river.

So, which is the correct location where John the Baptist baptised Jesus? One could fill books with arguments in favour of both places. But it must be remembered that descriptions of places in the New Testament are sparse. One of the reasons for this is because 40 to 70 years elapsed after Jesus’s death before any of his followers put pen to papyrus.

But does it really matter which is the correct site? In the Holy Land every year there are already two Christmases and two Easters. Orthodox and Catholic Christmas and Easter are celebrated on different dates, sometimes weeks apart. Surely what matters is not so much the precise spot of the baptism, but rather the whole ritual. In Antiquities XVIII, Josephus describes John’s baptism practices. First, people gathered to listen to his preaching, after which he asked them to lead righteous lives, both towards each other and towards God. This was followed by the “cleansing of souls and the purging of sins” – and finally the immersion in water.

Copyright © 2015 Exact Editions Ltd.

For the future of Christianity, look to Oxford 

Every Sunday, hundreds of church bells ring loudly across Oxford, but for whom do the bells toll? According to many who are enrolled in the 38 colleges and six halls, religion is a minority pursuit among Oxford’s 20,000 students. Religious trends there appear to reflect the findings on Christianity in Britain in the latest figures from the Pew Research Centre. This report found that the proportion of the population identifying themselves as Christians is falling – and that the percentage of those unaffiliated, who claim no religion at all, is rising.

acquired by St Benet’s, despite there being only five monks at St Benet’s, instead of the 25 in the 1950s, Prof Jeanrond is confident that the Catholic Church has a strong presence in the city. “As well as some keen students, we have Lord Patten, the first Catholic chancellor at Oxford since the 16th century, and the spirits of other famous 19th- and 20thcentury Catholics who attended Oxford University live on – Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, GK Chesterton and JRR Tolkien.”

Charles Vaughan, president-elect of the Oxford Union in his final year of law, summed up the views of many of his fellow students: “Catholicism within student circles at Oxford is small, but the community is very close. Catholic students often go along to Mass together in groups, and they discuss theological matters. They are not overly vocal about their faith outside of the Catholic community, I should think because of the thoroughly agnostic sentiment of the contemporary student body.”

Although other students I spoke to also remarked on how the majority studying at Oxford are nominal Christians, identifying with churches for cultural, not religious reasons, some thought otherwise.

Brendan Brett, president of the Oxford branch of the Companions of the Order of Malta, which runs a soup kitchen for the homeless and visits the elderly, said: “The Catholic profile may be lower than it was but it is strong and more focused than it ever has been. We have 560 members who volunteer to carry out charitable work.”

Natalie Denny, a medical student who is chairwoman of the Newman Society, the Catholic student organisation, confirmed this: “There is a vibrant Catholic community here with at least 200 students coming to the Chaplaincy each Sunday – and that’s just in one church alone.” When I summarised this to theology professor Werner Jeanrond, the Master of St Benet’s Hall, the Benedictine permanent private hall in the university, he said:

All Souls College, Oxford, viewed from the spire of St Mary the Virgin

“No longer can the number of people on pews be the sole measure of the vibrancy of Christianity. An absence from church does not mean that Catholics are not informed by a complex Christianity.”

This impressive academic, whose long list of publications includes the book The Theology of Love, then challenged the conclusions of polls in quantifying whether people follow a religion.

“Going to Mass on Sunday morning should no longer be the sole criterion of religious belief. The death of certain institutional expressions of Christianity is not necessarily a sign of bad news – new forms are emerging. Christianity is far from dead in Oxford, instead it is in an exciting stage of transformation.”

Looking out of the window of his study at St Benet’s, he added: “I’ve never lived in a city with so many churches. There are at least 60 or 70. Oxford competes with Rome. But there is a major transformation of religious life here. Remember, the fabric of Christianity changes.”

Others I spoke to were sceptical. Charles Vaughan, for instance, said that many students describe themselves as “culturally” religious to some degree and, like so many around him, he himself, despite having being christened, does not practise any religion. This, he said, appeared to be standard among Oxford students today. Tellingly, he added: “Real belief in an interventionist supernatural being – particularly the Catholic conception of God – is viewed with deep scepticism, and sometimes contempt.”

There is an irony that Christianity may be fading in Oxford. After all, this metropolis of academia was given the epithet ‘‘the city of dreaming spires’’ by Matthew Arnold because of the city’s multitude of churches.

One aspect which emphasises the Pew Report are the churches for sale listed on the Church of England website. We all look on Zoopla and Rightmove when searching for property to buy, but there is another venue: a page entitled “Closed Churches Available for Disposal” on the website churchofengland.org. The current list of the approximately 20 CofE churches that close each year includes an attractive example near Chichester and another near the centre of Exeter.

The decline in Church of England attendance has made many places of worship redundant – about 1,500 between 1969 and 2002. Some became derelict, others were demolished but now many are sought after for residential conversion.

A royal grave on the Mount of Olives

During Easter, as always, all Christian eyes turned to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives where Jesus spent his last night as a free man. Few people, though, realise the connection of the Mount of Olives with the British and Russian royal families.

The coffin of the mother of Prince Philip has rested there for 27 years. Marked “Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, Princess of Battenberg”, it lies in a crypt under the onion-domed Russian Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene, owned by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia which has its headquarters in New York. It would be assumed that as the mother-in-law of the Queen of England and grandmother of the future King of England, it would be assumed that many family members would have paid their respects. But Prince Philip has visited just once, in 1994, and the only other member of the British royal family to have made the journey was Prince Edward in 2007. Prince Charles is said to long to visit the convent, but politically it has been difficult.

Alice lies in Jerusalem because her dying wish in 1969 was to be buried beside her aunt, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, a Russian saint as well as a cousin of the Tsar and sister of the Tsarina. However, fulfilling her wish was full of complexities. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, the church has been in occupied East Jerusalem (an occupation opposed by the international community). Additionally, there were the problems of burying a Greek Orthodox princess in a Russian Orthodox church. So it wasn’t until 19 years after Alice’s death that she was transferred from the royal vault at Windsor.

Anyone visiting Alice, a nun who was born deaf and who risked her life in Nazi-occupied Athens to save Jews, will be surprised. The convent and its grounds on the hilly and rocky ground are breathtakingly beautiful – as is its spectacular view of the Old City and the Golden Gate. It is a special place with a rare tranquillity. The Mount of Olives is holy not just for Christians, but also for Jews, and just up the road from the Russian Church are the graves of over 150,000 Jews (including that of Robert Maxwell). According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come through the Golden Gate on Judgment Day and bring about the resurrection of those in graves opposite on the Mount of Olives. Jews have been buried there for more than 3,000 years so space is tight. It now costs over £15,000 to secure a small burial plot.

By chance, my visit coincided with the publication of rumours that the remains of some of Alice’s relations, Tsar Nicolas II, Empress Alexandra and three of their daughters, may be exhumed from their graves in the cathedral in St Petersburg for further DNA tests. After being shot dead in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks in 1918, their bodies had remained unidentified until DNA sequencing was carried out in 1978. Now it seems that President Putin’s government is going along with the scepticism of the Russian Orthodox Church about the conclusions.

When I climbed the steep path to the church I was greeted by Abbess Elizabeth, the convent’s lively superior. Standing under the lofty Aleppo pines, she told me how, as well as running their school for 400 Arab children in nearby Bethany, the 40 nuns restore icons, embroider vestments, make prayer ropes and incense run a gift shop and look after the increasing number of pilgrims and tourists. With obvious pleasure she added: ‘‘We’re very proud to have Princess Alice here.’’

As it happens, DNA is the subject of an exhibition that opened at the Science Museum in London on March 25. “Richard III: Life, Death and DNA” shows how DNA sequencing needs to be through an all-female or an all-male line. As Richard left no legitimate descendants, the University of Leicester, using genealogical research, traced a line of matrilineal descent from Richard’s sister, Anne of York. They then compared the DNA of two of her living descendants with the DNA taken from the remains discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012. This led to the conclusion “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains were those of Richard III.

If the Tsar and his wife are exhumed, the curious question is: whose DNA will be chosen? Last time, Prince Philip’s DNA was matched with that of the Tsar. Top candidates today are the hundreds of descendants of Queen Victoria – grandmother of the Russian empress.

Victoria was survived by six children including Edward VII; 40 grandchildren including the future George V and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth; and 37 greatgrandchildren including Edward VIII, Lord Mountbatten and Alice. They, and all their descendants, are closely related to the Russian royal family, but an unbroken matrilineal link must be discovered to obtain reliable identification using mitochondrial DNA sequences.

As the DNA from Alice could be the key to confirming the identity of four of the five Russian royal bodies, it’s fitting that she lies under a Russian church and is cared for lovingly by Russian nuns.

CATHOLIC HERALD, APRIL 17 2015

Time for another Dead Sea earthquake

The chronology of earthquakes in the Holy Land from the Bronze Age to the present is alarming

The green hills of Jerusalem should be covered in wild flowers this Easter. Record winter rainfalls have transformed the sandy Judean desert and its dry wadis. But there wasn’t enough rain to dislodge stubborn rocks concealing possible ancient apertures to hidden caves on the craggy cliffs of Qumran. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest existing copies of the Bible – were unearthed there on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea­ in the 1940s and 1950s, archaeologists haven’t found one cave with a cache of biblical parchments.

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