By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press Writer Sun Apr 20, 3:49 PM ET
JERUSALEM - Dozens of Greek and Armenian priests and worshippers exchanged blows at one of Christianity's holiest shrines on Orthodox Palm Sunday, and used palm fronds to pummel police who tried to break up the brawl.
The fight came amid growing rivalry over religious rights at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site in Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus was buried and resurrected.
It erupted when Armenian clergy kicked out a Greek priest from their midst, pushed him to the ground and kicked him, according to witnesses.
When police intervened, some worshippers hit them with the palm fronds they were holding for the religious holiday. The Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Armenians and Greek Orthodox, follow a different calendar from Western Christians and celebrate Easter next Sunday.
Two Armenian worshippers who attacked the Greek Orthodox clergy were briefly detained by Israeli police. Scores of Armenian supporters then protested outside the police station during the questioning of the two, beating drums and chanting.
The Holy Sepulcher is shared by several Christian denominations according to a centuries-old arrangement known as the "status quo."
Each denomination jealously guards its share of the basilica, and fights over rights at the church have intensified in recent years, particularly between the Armenians and Greeks.
Father Pakrad, an Armenian priest, said the presence of the Greek priest during the Armenian observances violated the status quo. "Our priests entered the tomb. They kicked the Greek monk out of the Edicule," he said, referring to the tomb area.
Pakrad accused the Greek Orthodox Christians of trying to step on the Armenians' rights. "We are the weak ones, persecuted by them for many centuries."
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III, told The Associated Press that the Armenians are pushing to change the rules, challenging what he said was the dominance of the Greek church in the Holy Land.
"This behavior is criminal and unacceptable by all means," he said. "They wanted to trespass on the status quo concerning the order that regulates the services between the various communities."
The Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem — where Jesus is said to have been born — also falls under the status quo arrangement. Last year, pre-Christmas cleaning in that church turned ugly when robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones.