Nov 032012

Yesterday afternoon at three o’clock, I welcomed Bishop Skatasta Moutrasou, Legate Extraordinary to the United States of America at Washington DC for his Holiness Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem to my office.  While Bishop Moutrasou did not come arrayed in ecclesiastical garb, wearing instead a bespoke Savile Row suit, his long, flowing beard readily identified him as a Eastern prelate.  An extremely proper and well-mannered fellow, he solemnly approached me, shook my hand, and then instinctively chose the chair located directly in front of my desk.  After slowly seating himself with an air of undiluted dignity, he spoke gravely, in a low and sonorous baritone.  “Mr. Tom Collins, I presume?”
“Indeed I am, Your Excellency,” I replied.  “How may I assist you and the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem?”
A long moment expired as Bishop Moutrasou composed his initial remarks.  Then, at last, he penetrated me with the gaze of his deep brown eyes and spoke.  “Mr. Collins, the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem cannot pay its water bill.”
“Excuse me, Your Excellency,” I responded, “but correct me if I am wrong – did you just tell me your Patriarchate can’t pay its… water bill?”
At that, Bishop Moutrasou offered a small shrug.  “Our Church, while, of course, the One True Church…”
“As are they all,” I reflexively interjected.
“Ah… yes,” he nodded.  “Because that is the nature of faith, is it not?  But nevertheless, Mr. Collins, our Church has fewer than two hundred thousand members, worldwide.  However, on the other hand, we are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the blessed structure which stands over what is arguably the most holy location in all of Christian history – the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, that place where Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, suffered on the cross, died, was buried, and laid three days in the Tomb from which he was Resurrected and taken up into Heaven.”
“Or not,” I noted, “depending on which archeologist you ask.”
“Archeology,” he answered with exaggerated politeness, “is a science, and as such, properly considered in the realms of valid logic, measurable mathematics and observable fact, while Orthodox Christianity is a religion, and subject only to the attributes of faith, none of which is so regrettably hindered.”
“Seen any good miracles, then?” I probed.
“The only miracle I seek,” he whispered back, “is one which will keep the toilet bowls flushing at the place where The Only Son of God Almighty died for our sins.”
“Fair enough,” I conceded.  “But since your problem, by your own admission, is that you can’t pay your water bill, would you mind if I ask for payment in advance?”
“Not at all, Mr. Collins,” he murmured with a slight smile, popping open his attaché case, withdrawing two bars of gold bullion stamped with the Coat of Arms of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and placing them before me, “I trust that the Troy weights indicated, at the current international exchange rate, meet or exceed your fee for this consultation.”
They did.  “How much, may I ask, is your water bill, anyway?”
“Nine million Israeli shekels,” Bishop Moutrasou revealed, “or, about two point three million US dollars.”
“Holy Mother of God!” I exclaimed.  “How the hell did you guys manage to run up a two million, three hundred thousand dollar water bill?”
“It is the Middle East, of course,” he winced, briefly throwing me a helpless, open-armed gesture accompanied by a heavenward glance.  “And, as one might imagine, water is… relatively expensive.  Also, the church was built in the fourth century by the Emperor Constantine…”
“Oh, come now,” I chided, “you’re not telling me the plumbing is that old, are you?”
“Actually,” he confirmed, “some of it, such as the original Roman main fountain aqueducts, which are underground and weren’t destroyed by Persian invasion of 614 actually is that old.  But the Romans built to last, and none of that infrastructure leaks.  Neither does the plumbing the Byzantines installed after they recaptured Jerusalem in 629, nor the aqueducts the Byzantines re-installed in 1009 when they took over from the Moslem Caliphate, nor the extensions built when the Crusaders came in 1149, nor the subsequent improvements made by the Ottoman Empire.  But the… um… cast iron apparatus… installed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the French and British, that, on the other hand… well, that stuff leaks like a sieve.”
“Okay,” I continued, “so – given your extensive experience with the property, when the state of Israel came along, surely you knew what your monthly water bill would be.  How did you get so many months behind that you ended up two million, three hundred thousand dollars in the hole?”
“For a… number of years,” he related, “we had an agreement with the mayor of Jerusalem that we would not have to pay for water supplied to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”
“In that case,” I wondered, “why don’t you just produce that agreement in court and…”
“The agreement,” he interrupted, “was not written down.”
“Not written down?” I exclaimed.  “What do you mean, an agreement between the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and the Mayor of Jerusalem to waive the Church’s water bills for… what, years?  Are you telling me there were years of zero charges for water bills for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and nothing was ever written down?  What kind of absurd horse hockey is such benighted nonsense as that?  How many years?”
“I cannot tell you what kind of absurd nonsense such horse hockey is,” Bishop Moutrasou confessed, “but I can tell you, it has been going on for over two decades.”
“On the basis of what – a handshake?” I said, utterly gobsmacked.
“Essentially,” he affirmed.
“In return,” I demanded, “for what?”
“Excuse me?” Bishop Moutrasou dissembled.
“Your Excellency,” I assured him, “I was not born yesterday.  If you will excuse my use of Latin rather than Greek, please tell me – what was the quid pro quo?”
“Altar boys,” he sighed.
“Altar boys?” I gasped.
“Oh no,” he shook his head vigorously, “not like that.  It was altar boys to wash the mayor’s car, mow his lawn, change the filters in his swimming pool, work on finishing his basement, weed his gardens, pave his drive way, bartend at his lawn parties, clean out his garage, vacuum his rugs, scrub his floors, do his laundry, pick up his dry cleaning, polish his silver… that sort of thing.”
“All right,” I told him.  “I get it – you had a deal, under the table, for personal services.  That’s how things are done in Israel, what with the culture and so forth, and sure, I can see that.  But – can you tell me what messed up this… um… sweetheart deal of yours?”
“That,” he sighed, “well… that’s… ah… debatable.  Some say it’s because the altar boys got lazy and stopped showing up when they were supposed to, others say it was because their work gradually degenerated to a completely unacceptable level of quality, still others say a particular altar boy took the mayor’s car out for a joy ride before washing it and ran into the rear end of a Jerusalem Police cruiser at eighty kilometers per hour, and still others allege that the mayor… um… began to make… er… unrequited advances… ah… for the sort of activity which… um… you initially expected was the basis of the deal in the first place.  In any case, the upshot was, suddenly the Church of the Holy Sepulcher received a bill for two point three million dollars in unpaid water utility services.”
“And then what?” I pressed.
“And then, the Jerusalem water utility got a court order to freeze all of our bank accounts.  Now,” he moaned, “not only can’t we pay our professional staff, we can’t even pay our other bills, such as the ones for beeswax candles, incense, and electricity.  This whole thing has been total hell on our credit rating, I’ll tell you, it’s absolute murder.”
“It seems to me,” I recollected, “that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is under the jurisdiction of not only the Greek Orthodox, but also the Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholics, Jacobite Syrians and Ethiopian Orthodox – under the terms of the 1878 Berlin Status Quo Agreement.”
“This is true,” he confirmed.
“So why is the water bill your problem and that of nobody else?” I inquired.
“Because,” he explained, “according to Clause Nineteen, Sub-Paragraph Q, Paragraph Three Hundred and Seventy Six, Section Forty Eight, Article Eleven of the 1878 Berlin Status Quo Agreement, the Original Apostolic Orthodox Christian Church of Jerusalem is solely responsible for defrayment of all aqueous costs associated with operation of the Church.”
“Okay, sure, technically, maybe,” I conceded, “but realistically speaking, can’t you scrape up enough money among the Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholics, Jacobite Syrians and Ethiopian Orthodox participants to pay off the water bill?”
“You are aware, I assume,” Bishop Moutrasou asked, “that all of those factions involved, which you just mentioned, have, over the course of many centuries, grown to hate, despise and distrust each other to such an extent, that the keys to the church doors have become entrusted to the custody of a prominent local Moslem family, a adult male member of which performs a thirty minute ritual, in the witnessing presence of representatives of each faith, both to open and close the church doors every day; and that this ritual has been necessary in order to avoid violent conflict among the participants, for over six hundred years?”
“Sure,” I confirmed.  “No big secret there.  As the place at which the Resurrection occurred, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is arguably one of the most important, if not the most important of all holy sites in Christendom.  No self-respecting Christian creed with anything like a reasonable claim to the place would want to relinquish the smallest part of it.  But are you telling me that rivalry has become so rank, so inflamed, so festering, and so pathetically petty, it extends to the utility bills?”
“Yes,” he assured me, “I am.”
“That,” I observed, “in my humble opinion, constitutes some extremely un-Christian behavior.”
“Perhaps,” Bishop Moutrasou diffidently allowed, “but what would you recommend we do?”
“I recommend,” I declared as I pushed his gold bars back across my desk at him, “that you, and all the other churches involved, ask yourselves – What would Jesus do?”