Who Guards The Most Sacred Site In Christendom? Two Muslims


JERUSALEM — Every Christian knows the holiest places in Christendom are in Jerusalem. The holiest of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was erected in 325, over the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.

Yet, few know that it is a Muslim who opens and closes the only door to this holiest of Christian sites.

In fact, it’s two Muslims: one man from the Joudeh family and another man from the Nuseibeh family, two Jerusalem Palestinian clans who have been the custodians of the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre since the 12th century

Every morning, at 4:30, Adeeb Joudeh travels from his apartment outside the walls of the Old City to bring the cast-iron key to the church, just as his father and his forebears did before him.

Once there, he entrusts the key — looking like a 12-inch (30-centimeter) long iron wedge — to Wajeeh Nuseibeh, who knocks at the gate to call the priests and the pilgrims who spend the night praying inside. From inside the church, a wooden ladder is passed through a porthole to help him unlock the upper part of the enormous door.

Then, he unlocks the lower one before handing the precious key back to Joudeh. The ritual is reversed every evening at 7:30, after hundreds of tourists and pilgrims have left the church.

During holidays, such as Holy Week, which culminates Sunday with the Christian Easter, the elaborate opening and closing ceremonies take place several times a day.

Why the elaborate ritual? As often happens in Jerusalem, a city holy to several peoples and religions, there are different versions to explain why two Muslim families hold the key to the holiest site in Christendom.

“After the Muslim conquest in 637, the Caliph Omar guaranteed the Archbishop Sophronius that the Christian places of worship would be protected and so entrusted the custodianship to the Nuseibehs, a family who originated in Medina and had had relations with the Prophet Muhammad,” said Nuseibeh, a retired 63-year old electrician, while waiting in a nearby cafe to carry out his duties at the Holy Sepulchre.

“It happened again in 1187, after Saladin ended the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. He chose our family again to look after the peace between the different Eastern and Western Christian confessions, which were at odds over control of the Sepulchre,” he said with a gentle smile, sitting next to his son, Obadah.

To this day, coexistence among the several Christian churches sharing the Holy Sepulchre is a delicate one. Catholic, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian Orthodox monks have resorted to fists more than once to defend their respective denomination’s rights and privileges in the church, as defined in an decree by the Ottoman Empire, known as the Status Quo of 1853.

Such impious brawls between clergy proved Saladin’s prescience 1,000 years ago, when the sultan sealed the second front gate of the church and entrusted control of the remaining entrance to neutral custodians.

The Nuseibehs claim that the Joudehs entered this story only in the 16th century, after the Ottoman Turks gained control of Palestine and decided to charge a second family with the responsibility of guarding the key.

“Yes, we share the responsibility with the Joudehs, and sometimes we argue, as happens in a family,” Nuseibeh said.

Each Maundy Thursday since the end of the 19th century, the two Muslim families give the key to the Holy Sepulchre to the local Franciscan friars, for as long as it takes to walk to the church in a procession and to open the door after the morning liturgies. When those are completed, the friars return the key to the families.

This ceremony, which confirms in practice the validity of the Muslim families’ custodianship, is repeated with the Greek and Armenian communities, on Orthodox Good Friday and Holy Saturday, respectively.

“Right now, I have in my hands the keys to Christendom’s heart. This is a very important moment for us,” said the Rev. Artemio Vitores, the Spanish Franciscan who is the vicar Custodian of the Holy Land, during the Maundy Thursday procession.

“For centuries, Christian pilgrims were denied entry to the church, or had to pay huge sums to pray on the Sepulchre,” he said, all while holding the key.

At the head of the procession, Vitores was flanked on one side by Wajeeh Nusseibeh, his son Obadah and two cousins, all of whom were equally compensated by the friars for their services with the symbolic sum of $60.

On Vitores’ other side were Adeeb Joudeh, wearing an impeccable dark gray suit, and his 19-year-old son Jawad.

For about 20 minutes, Joudeh ceded control of the only existing key to the Holy Sepulchre. While there is another key, it is broken and no longer used. The functioning key is normally kept in a small office attached to the church and is guarded by an employee of the Joudeh family.

“This key has seen Saladin and every generation of my family since 1187. To me, it’s an honor to be in charge of the holiest of Christian places,” Joudeh said, while walking the cobblestoned alley leading to the Holy Sepulchre.

He insisted on showing on his smartphone what he claimed are 165 official decrees confirming the Joudeh family’s role as custodian of the church over the centuries.

“My ancestor who was given the keys was a sheik, a highly respected person, who was not supposed to perform physical labor, such as climbing the ladder to open the gate,” Joudeh explained. “That’s why the Nuseibehs were called in to perform this duty. Unfortunately, they feel still ashamed of being just the doorkeepers.”

At the end of the procession, the key was welcomed by cheerful pilgrims waiting in front of the church.

For a few minutes, everybody stared at the solemn opening of the gate before rushing in.

Moments later, Adeeb Joudeh walked home with his son, as did Wajeeh Nuseibeh. They will come back here, time and again, at the gate of the Holy Sepulchre: two Muslims, coming in peace to bear the key to the heart of Christianity.

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  • Fazel Subian

    Haraam sites

    • Aftab Ali

      shut the hell up! its because of bigots like u that islam is given such a bad name!

    • Isamir

      So you believe you know better than the great Sahabah? Cleanse your heart and stop listening to false sheikhs who call for war and killing others

    • Laila

      I hope you realize one day that when you are truly comfortable and at peace in your own religious beliefs – you do not feel the need to exaggerate your adherence to them. I hope Allah guides you in the right path – not the one which wahabists have guided you to – salaam.

      • Herbert Weber

        Which Allah, who allow beheaded Christians who allow to bomb Mosques and Churches, who allow abuse kids and woman in the name of Mohammed. My god, forget Allah, he is no good to the mankind because his Koran is the instruction to destroy othe rReligions.

        • Laila

          I don’t recall Allah coming and tell anyone those things were ok – those are things man does. Are you attributing human beings actions to the creator? How odd. I cannot imagine attributing adultery and rampant divorce to Jesus in Christianity. That would be irresponsible.

      • Kevin Bano

        ameen. 🙂

  • Joshua Gibbons

    Its because arabs were once Christians, during the time of Saint Sophronius when mohammad the idiot was not yet born

    • Shajju

      Joshua, do you see any Muslims mocking Jesus? What’s wrong with you?

      • Kira Yamanaka

        true Arabs once been Christians Jesus was born in Palestine and to top it all in Islam your not allowed to curse are bad mouth any other religion ANY religion because we know that if we curse Juses you will curse Allah so we dont curse other religions

        • Jordy Daminta Pius

          Great, bro.
          Keep on

      • k edwin

        Not not mocking ….. It’s about criticising others. I see Muslims all the time criticizing hIndus and Christians .Islam is a good religion but please try to respect other faiths

        • Akbar

          Yes my dear u rabsolutely right but some people make politics thats bad sounds

    • muffy

      shut ur filthy mouth Joshua ! u brain-dead motherfucker bastard

  • Aisaiah

    “…I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Pslm48:10)

    Thank you, may God bless you for helping out in keeping peace.

    More of this. AMeen

  • Isabelle Cathrine H. M.

    The true Place is the Garden Tomb! In Jerusalem.

  • Peter Dunlop

    Temple Mt.
    I have always considered as the Holiest site!

  • Alvin Simeon Theodore

    It will soon gone after the Zionist will destroy it after they destroy the Palestinians thanks to Fagamerica…

    • k edwin

      No alvin most of the Christian holy sites were destroyed by extremists from palestine not by Jews . Because of Jews Christian holy sites are well preserved

  • k edwin

    Yes a Muslim safe guarding a Christian holy site . But Muslims will never allow other religious people to even enter their holy places. Love peace with all mankind in the world .

    • Akbar

      My dear some of our mullahs make it complicated to see the place but not our prophet peace be upon him

      • Haris

        Its not about the mullah so stop bashing Mullahs for no reason. Any man can enter the masjid provided he is clean physically and is wearing clean cloths covering his body from navel to knees atleast.

    • That’s not true. There are mosques in the Middle East like the tomb of John the Baptist (Nabiullah Yahya, alaihi salam) among other mosques that are shared by Muslims and Christians. Non Muslims are free to enter the mosque as long as solemnity and hygiene are observed.

  • Jesus Christ is a Palestinian who believes in one God like the Muslims, pray like the Muslims and fast like the Muslims. Jesus Christ is revered in Islam. A Muslim is not a Muslim if he/she does not believe in Jesus Christ (Nabiullah Issah, alaihi salam).

    • David Arulnathan

      so in Islam Jesus is the greatest Prophet…..!! & God.

      • Haris

        Jesus (Hazrat Issah Alaihi Salam) is a revered prophet of Islam but he is not greatest prophet nor the God. Final Prophet of Allah Muhammad is the greatest prophet of Allah. And God is only one and one only Allah.

    • Herbert Weber

      Wow i must womit about your comment. WWhy the palistinians are such cruel and intolerant when they believe in jesus christ. And Christ means saviour for all people in the world. Why your Allah must sent the Mohammed, the killed and abused kids? When palastinian belive in Christ, so there is no more space for Mohammed the Antichrist. The Islam is not the religion who jesus Christ teached and for its died.

      • sufipeace

        LOVE is the basis of Islam—as my Shaykh explained in lecture. Many peaple say its PEACEm but my shaykh explained they r wrong. Its love, and the peace follows from that LOVE.

    • Agosu Viyon Olamide

      Palestinians do not even know their own history. What’s the origin of the name Palestine ? When Jesus walked this earth there was no mention of Palestine and it was never supposed to be anyway.

      What is the genealogy of Jesus Christ? You see Judah, Israel(Jacob) in that history, you will never find Palestine.

      Was the mother Mary a Palestine ? The father Joseph a Palestine ?

      Did he die and resurrect the 3rd day?

      Was he buried in the tomb in Palestine ?

      Did he have disciples that are Palestinians ?

      Have archeologists found any history of him to affirm his history in the Qur

  • Lukas Cerdeña

    If a human or group of humans decide for a place to be holy then it is not holy. Only God Himself decides which place is holy. It is God’s presence that makes the place holy.

  • dsk71

    The Nusseibehs and Joudehs are so highly regarded by Christian Palestinians as keepers to the church keys that when I was growing up I thought the 2 families were Christian LoL!! We thank you for your efforts

  • Андрей Аккелин

    I need a photo of me holding that key . 7.30 pm ? Got it .

  • Salman Shehu

    K Edwin, a christian delegation made up of Bishops once visited our Prophet peace be upon him on matters related to trade and co existence. When they were done ,they asked for a break to go out and offer their prayers. The Prophet asked them to worship in his mosque to their amazement and those around , the service was held and not a single word of abuse or disagreement was uttered.

  • Noor Nabi

    Allah is The One and Only. Who is The Creator of all the Universes and Man kind, He sent many Prophets,
    Allah created man for a noble purpose: to worship Him and lead a virtuous life based on His teachings and guidance. How would man know his role and the purpose of his existence unless he received clear and practical instructions of what Allah wants him to do? Here comes the need for prophethood. Thus Allah has chosen from every nation at least one prophet to convey His Message to people.
    One might ask, how were the prophets chosen and who were entitled to this great honor?
    Thats true Jessus was also Blessed with this honor( Honor of prophethood ) but the Last Prophet was Muhammad,( PBUH), and he was the most beloved Prophet of Allah. That’s why he was Chosen as last prophet and to follow his teachings.

  • Concerned

    It’s a lesson to Christians to stop bickering and start working together in love.