Palestinian gunmen encamped in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity are sharing quarters with the 44 clergy who remain in the compound. What is the Church of Nativity, andwhat is its religious affiliation?
Widely believed to stand on the birthplace of Jesus, the church's basilica was constructed in A.D. 326 under Roman Emperor Constantine, then nearly destroyed during a sixth-century Samaritan uprising. Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church from 527 to 565. Today, the church compound sprawls over 40,000 square feet and houses the main basilica, an adjoining church, three monasteries, and a maze of underground chambers.
Since 1856, three Christian denominations have jointly controlled the compound: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. The agreement of co-ownership, known as the Status Quo, was brokered by a Turkish sultan. After the agreement was signed, the Vatican assigned a Latin patriarch to Bethlehem to act as the chief Roman Catholic bishop in the region.
Relations between members of the three denominations are testy. The clergy—made up of priests, monks, friars, and nuns—live, eat, and sleep in separate areas of the fortress-like facility, rarely interacting with the clergy from other denominations. Even for prayer, territory is strictly divided. In order for the groups to worship separately, the Greek Orthodox clergy occupy the nave and sanctuary in the central area of the church. The Armenians control a small chapel adjacent to the sanctuary. The Roman Catholics principally worship at St. Catherine's, a modern church built in 1882 as part of the monastic compound.
Explainer thanks Stephen Fields and Anthony Tambasco, professors of theology at Georgetown University.