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Meet the Muslim family who holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The February protest closure was only the second time the doors have been shut off schedule, said Nuseibeh. Twenty years ago, the church was closed because of a disturbance caused by a visitor to the church, he said.

Every inch of the church is so carefully watched over by the different denominations that even the ladder used to reach the window in front of the door’s padlock is under contention. Sometimes it is symbolically in the possession of the Armenian Orthodox, or the Greek Orthodox or the Catholics. It is Nuseibeh’s responsibility to pound the heavy door knocker on the ancient doors, signifying the figurative changing of ownership of the ladder.

The busiest time of the year for Nuseibeh is during Holy Week. During that week, Nuseibeh gets the key from the Joudeh family, a representative of whom is also present during Holy Week, and opens the door at 4 a.m.

Traditionally on a day when all three denominations have a holy day, representatives of the Greek, Armenian and Catholic churches unbolt the door from inside, then pass the ladder outside the trap-door window, where it is received and placed upon the door. Nuseibeh then climbs the ladder, a representative of the Joudeh family gives him the key, and he opens the lock. A bell inside is rung to announce the opening, and the three representatives open the inside lock and, at the signal, pull the handle together. Finally, they all go outside to take the ladder inside.

On Holy Thursday, the key is temporarily given to the vicar of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. That afternoon he is the one who hands the key to Nuseibeh to open the door, then it is once again returned to the Joudeh family.

On Good Friday, said Nuseibeh, the key is given to the Greek Orthodox in a similar fashion. The same ritual is followed for the Holy Fire ceremony for the Armenian Orthodox. Nuseibeh also plays a role in this traditional ceremony and is a witness to the sealing of the tomb of Jesus.

Discussions about opening a new emergency door to the church have never been completed, although the three denominations have agreed on a location.

“If there were to be a second door, who would be in charge of the key?” asked Father Murphy-O’Connor almost two decades ago. “If there is an emergency, who would have the key? It’s very complex when you start thinking of the details.”

The question remains unanswered.

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