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I am tempted to call it a primeval struggle, drenched in antiquity, shrouded in religious fervor and destined to feed future conflict until come judgment day, whenever the heck that may  be. Except it just ain’t so. It is much simpler than that. The day after Christmas 2007, two rival gangs got into a turf dispute and started a  rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests) were battling inside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birth place of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Israel, Palestinian Territories. And nothing about this melee made any more sense than your standard gang brawl. And yet I blame the French Emperor Napoleon III for the entire mess.

First, a word about all that antiquity – it does not appear to have happened where or when everybody now thinks it did - assuming it happened at all. Roman census or no census, there was no reason for a pregnant Mary to be making a 90 mile donkey ride from Nazareth, on the Galilee plain of northern Israel, to Bethlehem in the mountains just south of Jerusalem, in the west center of Israel. Being the man, Joseph was expected and qualified to speak for his entire family. He would have been the only one required to travel. But why require anybody to travel? The Romans census takers did what census takers still do today - they counted people where they were. That would be where their property was, and where their money was. Why disrupt business all across a rebellious province, in the name of counting people where they were not? It makes no sense.
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And there is another problem, an archaeological problem. There is no archeology in Bethlehem from that period. The ground under today's Bethlehem contains Iron Age artifacts and Byzantine artifacts, but nothing in between, nothing from the age of Jesus. The village outside of Jerusalem did not exist on the night that Jesus was born.. However, there was another Bethlehem, “Bethlehem Ha Galilit”, Bethlehem of Galilee, just about 7 miles to the west of Nazareth. It seems far more likely that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem Ha Galilit, than in Bethlehem Judea. But because Bethlehem Ha Galilit no longer existed in the fourth century of the common era, when the Byzantine Christians came looking for Jesus' birthplace, they jumped to the wrong conclusion and picked the wrong Bethlehem. So did the followers of Islam, when they first captured the region in year 627 B.C.E.- which is when things got really complicated.
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Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187 the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics, who had invaded them and now made up a majority of Bethlehem Judea’s population. So they split control of the profitable tourist sites in Bethlehem Judea between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, in particular the church built upon the “traditional” site of the birth of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox were given control of one part of the building, the Armenian Orthodox control of another part. This allowed the Ottomans to play the two Christian sects one against the other, and to play them both off the Roman Catholics, who were now the poor relations in town.
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And thus some calm was achieved in a region not famous for calm, at least until 1852, when a “firman” (or edict) was issued by Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World (above). Abdulmecit issued his edict because…well, because first, in 1847 some thug stole the silver star which marked the “traditional” spot of Jesus’ birth, in the floor of the Church of the Nativity, and, more importantly, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III of France was a pompous political hack, who believed that he had been chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world.
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Louis Napoleon III was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848. He immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped to restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased French Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate the liberal (meaning non-Catholic) French voters. But no Church ever likes to be lectured about liberal policies from secular politicians. Just try it some time and see.
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In an attempt to placate the now angry Catholic voters, Louis III suggested that the theft of the star from the Church of the Nativity (five years earlier) proved that the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe”, and control should be handed over to the Roman Catholic Church for protection - yet another politician declaring a crises which needed his genius to solve. This particular crises pleased Pope Pius IX., who had come to the conclusion that Czar Nicholas I of Russia was intent upon wiping out Catholicism in his country - which Nicholas was, the Czar being the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
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Louis' demand also pleased Abdulmecit I, because Albdulmecit had the distinct feeling that Czar Nicholas was about to invade Turkey - which he was. So,  under Abdulmecit's edict, the keys to the Church of the Nativity were now handed over the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time the edict also required the Vatican to maintain the church “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”. This edict is linguistically important because it popularization the English phrase “status quo”.
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Now, all of his life Russian Czar Nicholas I had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith, that faith being Russian Orthodoxy. And Nicholas was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal and holy authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Church of the Nativity be returned to the Armenian and Greek priests, who would, he was certain, be controlled by him. And when the keys were not handed over,  he declared war on Turkey - of course, he had been planning on doing that anyway.  Britain and France then came to Turkey’s defense. And so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 were Russian.
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In his rise to power Napoleon III (above) had shamelessly played one political faction off another, and eventually abolished democracy in his own state, created a throne for himself, invaded Algeria and Vietnam - both of which actions came back to haunt France a century later - and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War,  which resulted in his humiliating defeat, the creation of Germany,  Louis’ own overthrow and his death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century French diplomacy.
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The Crimean War also cost Nicholas I his life. While on campaign against Turkey he caught a chill and died of pneumonia on March 2,1855. The Ottoman Sultan, Abdülmecit, lived long enough to see his nation plunged into debt by that same war.  By Abdulmecit's death from tuberculosis in 1861, Turkey was flat broke. His successor was dethroned.
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Amazingly, the same war left Pope Pius IX alive but very frustrated. Because France had been distracted by the Crimean War, there was no help from France when Victor Emmanuel took control of Italy in 1860 from the Catholic Church and established the modern semi-secular nation of Italy.  But Pius achieved a measure of revenge when, in 1869 he issued the decree of Papal Infallibility and declared the dogma of Immaculate Conception. Together these meant that Mary, mother of Jesus, was born without sin because the Pope said she was without sin. And the Pope was never wrong, because he said he was never wrong. Neither of these were official Roman Catholic dogma until 1869, but it has been church dogma ever since. The last American President to declare this was Richard Nixon, and he got impeached anyway - so evidently it only works for religious leaders.
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But, let us finally return to the Church of the Nativity on December 27, 2007. According to the Associated Press; “....dozens of priests and cleaners came to the fortress-like church to scrub and sweep the floors, walls and rafters ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in the first week of January...  But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the {Greek) Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians. Palestinian police, armed with batons and shields, quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue...Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly injured.”
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Traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their priests for this sacred post from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men now suddenly found themselves working in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives or their training prepared them for any kind of peaceful coexistence.
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And the whole thing was Louis Napoleon III’s idea.  But try explaining that to a bunch of uneducated foreigners.
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