In the wake of the recent destruction of a number of Coptic Christian churches in Egypt — some of them ancient — by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, it might be helpful to recall that Islamic history provides numerous examples of a very different path.
For example, for many mainstream Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the holiest place on earth. It marks the traditional spot both of Christ’s crucifixion and his burial, and, thus, also of his resurrection from the dead. Built under Constantine the Great, it was severely damaged when, in AD 614, the Persians conquered the city. (These were, to be clear, pre-Islamic Persians; their Islamization was still roughly three decades off, at the very least.) It was reconstructed after the Byzantines retook the city under Heraclius, with no major changes to the original plan and incorporating substantial portions of the Constantinian building.
In AD 637 — just five years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad — Arab Muslim armies took Jerusalem from Byzantine control. The Caliph Umar, successor to Muhammad and ruler of the rising Arab empire, entered the city and, among other things, was given a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Christian Patriarch Sophronius.
They were apparently still within the building when the summons to the Islamic noon prayer sounded. Sophronius invited Umar to spread his prayer rug within the church and to perform his worship there, but Umar declined.
Why did he decline the offer? Was it because he regarded Christian churches as defiled places of idolatrous worship? No. He explained his reasoning as follows: If he were to pray there, his soldiers, seeing what he had done, would feel that they too could pray within the church. And, soon, they would effectively take the building over and turn it into a mosque. So he spread his rug on the ground in front of the church and prayed there.
And, still today, visitors to the Holy Sepulcher who stand with their backs to the main entrance, if they look forward and slightly to the right, at about one or two o’clock, can see across the church’s southern courtyard a small, architecturally undistinguished place of Muslim worship called “The Mosque of Umar.”
For many centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been uneasily shared by five competing, jealous, and often contentious Christian denominations — the Roman or Latin Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Copts and the Syrian Orthodox. (There’s also a small Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof.) Not infrequently, disagreements over the right to clean, sing or pray in a particular area of the church have led to violence.
Because of Christian inability to get along, the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has long been entrusted to a Muslim family, who can be relied upon to open the doors to all and to exclude nobody. (Muslims venerate Jesus as a prophet but are uninterested in the theological disputes that have torn Christendom asunder.)
“Like all brothers,” says Wajeeh Nuseibeh, “they sometimes have problems. We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church. We are the United Nations. We help preserve peace in this holy place.”
During the centuries since Umar’s conquest of Jerusalem, the Nuseibeh family has helped to keep the peace between these squabbling Christians. Every morning at roughly 4 a.m., one of the Nuseibehs uses a massive iron key to open the doors of the church; at nightfall every evening, a member of the family locks those doors. The only gap in their service came during the 88 years of Crusader rule in the 12th century.
According to family lore, it was the great Muslim foe of the Crusades, Salah al-Din or Saladin, who reappointed the Nuseibehs to their custodial role. Later, after the Ottoman Turks took control of the city in the 16th century, they appointed the Joudeh family, also Muslims, to be responsible for the church’s ancient key. Thus, when the Nuseibeh family finishes with its daily duty of opening and closing the church, it entrusts the key to the care of the Joudehs, and when it sets out in the morning to open the doors again, it must retrieve that key from the Joudeh family.
The notion really banded about that devout Muslims seek to destroy Christian churches is historically false. Some, indeed, have saved them — and sometimes from Christians.
Daniel Peterson edits BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History.” Their opinions are their own.