JERUSALEM – Dozens of Greek and Armenian priests and worshippers exchanged blows in Christianity's holiest shrine on Palm Sunday, and pummeled police with palm fronds when they tried to break up the brawl.
The fight is part of a growing rivalry over religious rights at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site 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.
Two Armenian worshippers were briefly detained by Israeli police. Scores of Armenian supporters staged a protest 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 of worship at the church have intensified in recent years, particularly between the Armenians and Greeks.
The Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Armenians and Greek Orthodox, follow a different calendar than Western Christians and began Easter Week observances on Sunday.
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.
Pakrad accused the Greek Orthodox 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 the Armenians are pushing to change the rules, and try to challenge was he said is the dominance of his 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."
Last year, pre-Christmas cleaning in the Church of the Nativity turned ugly when robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto — also falls under the status quo arrangement.
The status quo divides the Holy Sepulcher among the Armenians, Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox who have the largest share. The Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox churches also have duties to maintain specific areas.