Trivial spat with profound implications

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am


Bethlehem, which has entranced mankind for millennia, had a 21st-century moment this week after an unseemly spat there made the news.

As shown on television, men of the cloth came to blows at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's most sacred sites. It was another bout in the turf war between the Greek and Armenian churches for the privilege of celebrating next Saturday's Orthodox Christmas on the actual site where, they believe, the God who made the universe became a human being.

'It's a trivial problem,' a police officer told the BBC, referring to bearded men belabouring each other with broomsticks.

You can understand why he would say that, in a notoriously disputatious part of the world. The phrase 'fighting in Palestine' brings rocks, missiles, tanks and suicide bombs to mind, not priests imitating football hooligans.

However, the only reason this year's rumble made the news was because someone had the presence of mind to record the incident on video. Had the fight been recorded only in words, in a news agency report, for example, it is doubtful it would have made more than a digest buried among the acres of wire copy on the world pages.

The dispute between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches goes right back to the origins of Christianity, with the Armenians, also known as the Gregorian church, claiming to be the first Christians, from the first century AD. The rest of us are apostates, heretics or worse, the way they see it, so the fight over the place where Jesus was born has profound implications, if you have the time to consider them.

However, the BBC denoted its view of the significance of the incident by broadcasting its report in the 'and now for something completely different' slot. The only news item whose triviality exceeded the fighting over the Nativity in Bethlehem was one from Australia, about a crocodile that had attacked a zookeeper's lawnmower.