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Congregations Take Major Step In Holy Sepulcher Restorations

April 14, 1992

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The massive dome of the church over the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, damaged by an earthquake and blackened by soot, will soon come ablaze with the colors of the sun.

The three rival denominations controlling the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity’s most venerated site, have at last agreed on a ceiling design: silver rays on a gold field.

It is the final step in a restoration project that has gone on for more than three decades, dragged out by wrangling among the clergy.

The 115-foot-tall dome will remain hidden by scaffolding for this year’s Easter rites, starting Friday. But soon after, clergy hope, painting will begin.

The basilica in the heart of Jerusalem’s walled Old City was built by Crusaders 900 years ago. It marks the site where tradition says Jesus was buried. Pilgrims on Good Friday carry crosses to the church to commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion. Sunday services mark his resurrection.

A fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927 seriously damaged the dark, cluttered shrine. It wasn’t until 1961 that the three communities in charge - the Armenian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox - agreed to start the restorations.

The reason for the delay: the clergy jealously defended the codified rights each has to specific parts of the church and to joint areas, such as the tomb and the main dome.

In the end, they had no choice but to work together, said Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a Dominican priest and historian.

″They were afraid the whole structure was going to come down around their ears,″ Murphy-O’Connor said.

He recalled that in the early 1960s, church officials had taped glass across cracks in the structure to gauge further movement. ″The most horrendous sound you could hear was a sharp ‘ping.’ It meant glass ... had broken.″

Over the past 30 years, restorers replaced many of the huge limestone blocks in the church walls with new blocks hewn from the same West Bank quarry that yielded the Crusader originals.

They also erected 18 new marble pillars circling the tomb.

The major task that remains is finishing work on the great dome. It was last repaired in 1866 but left structurally unsound by the earthquake.

It was unclear what design graced the dome before, because it was obliterated by soot from the fire.

So far, the great dome has been shored up and replastered.

The Armenians, Latins and Greeks had argued over the past year about the design.

A Greek proposal to paint angels on a blue background was rejected by the others ″because the angels would look either like Orthodox, Armenian or Latin,″ said Armenian Bishop Guregh Kapikian, who represents his community in the negotiations.

More debating sessions yielded agreement in principle: a gilded background and silver rays descending from the round window at the apex. Three rival designs will be considered in May.

Archbishop Timothy Margaritis of the Greek Orthodox Church said he initially also proposed gold mosaics in keeping with the Eastern style, but relented to get the decorations moving.

″Simplicity is preferred, there shouldn’t be too much decoration,″ Kapikian said during a tour of the church on Friday.

He made the comment after wrinkling his nose at the new 33-foot reinforced concrete wall demarcating the Greek Orthodox section of the church. Last month, the denomination decorated it with a bright mosaic of the crucifixion and burial.

″This is not in harmony with the rest of the church,″ Kapikian complained.

Margaritis defended the choice.

″We have our own principles of aesthetics and we do not need to please others who have no connection to the church,″ he said.

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