"Status quo" or “statu quo", as it is commonly called in the Holy Land and in many publications, in a broad sense refers to the relations between the Christian communities of the Holy Land with the governments of the region.
Specifically, status quo applies to the situation within the Holy Land in which the Christian communities find themselves regarding ownership and rights possessed by each within the sanctuaries, both alone and in conjunction with other rites within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem.
The life of the sanctuaries is inseparable from the political regimes of the Holy Land, which have slowly led to the situation in force today. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches were in continual struggle over a number of sanctuaries, more specifically, the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of the Madonna and the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem).
It was a period of “fraternal strife and political interventions”. Through these painful events, one arrived at the existing situation, ratified by an official declaration on February 8, 1852, and referred to by the term status quo. The status quo in the sanctuaries of the Holy Land, especially in the Holy Sepulcher, determine the subjects of ownership of the holy places, and more specifically, the spaces inside the sanctuaries. It also extends to the times and durations of functions, movements, the routes taken and how they are implemented, whether by singing or by reading.
It must be remembered that the officiating communities in the Holy Sepulcher, in addition to the Latin or Catholic community, are the Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian communities, and that any change requires the consent of all the communities. The communities of the Holy Sepulcher are regulated according to the proper calendars of each rite.
For the Catholic community, the Franciscans follow the liturgical celebrations in accord with the level of solemnity established before the reform of Vatican II, as this entitles the community, as acquired by status quo, the right to solemn First Vespers, Matins, Mass and other functions related to the celebration, including processions, blessings with incense, etc.
To better understand this situation, some historical outline is necessary.
In 1463, immediately after his entrance into Constantinople, Mohammed II proclaimed the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople the religious and civil authority for all Christians residing in his Empire.
From that time on, the Orthodox religious communities of Greece, availing themselves as subjects of the Ottoman Empire, were able to pour into the Holy Land and exercise a most effective influence over the sultan, obtaining advantages in their favour within the sanctuaries. Greek clerics were progressively able to replace the Oriental or native clerics.
Since 1634, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem has always been a native Greek.
In 1617, the Ottoman Empire gained control of Palestine from the Mamluks of Egypt. This started a definite change of “balance of power” in relation to the Christian holy places. During this century, Greek (Hellenic) clergy began to claim rights to the holy places. In 1666, the Orthodox Patriarch Germano claimed Orthodox rights over the Basilica of Bethlehem, confirming claims made by the Patriarchs Sofronius IV (1579-1608) and Theophanes (1608-1644). Similar claims were also made on the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Such attempts were stopped through the intervention of the Western powers of Venice and especially of France to the Sublime Porte (as was called the Supreme Chamber of the Ottoman Empire). In 1633, Patriarch Theophanius managed to obtain an official decree backdated to the time of Omar (638), which gave the Greek Orthodox Patriarch exclusive rights to the Grotto of the Nativity, Calvary and the Stone of Unction. The Western powers were able to obtain, under pressure by Pope Urban VII, the retraction of the decree. This decree, however, was issued again in 1637.
At that time, Venice, Austria and Poland were at war against the Empire, and they were unable to have any influence in favour of the Franciscans.
The situation was made still more drastic in 1676, when Patriarch Dositheus (1669-1707), obtained another decree by which he received exclusive possession of the Holy Sepulcher. Following protests from the West, the Sublime Porte named a special tribunal to examine the various documents.
In 1690, by special decree, the tribunal declared that the Franciscans were the rightful titleholders of the Basilica. From then on, the Western powers were increasingly proactive with regard to the Ottoman Government, and in making treaties imposed clauses to guarantee the rights of Catholics in the holy places. This was so at the Treaties of Karlowitz (1699), Passarowitz (1718), Belgrade (1739), and Sistow (1791). However, the effective results of such interventions were few.
In 1767, following violent clashes and vandalism involving the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans, the Sublime Porte issued a decree assigning the Basilica of Bethlehem, the Tomb of the Mary and almost the entire Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher to the Greek Orthodox. Despite repeated appeals of Pope Clement XIII to the Western powers, the decree was confirmed and the situation of the holy places was finalized, save some small details, in a manner now definitive to the present day.
In the 19th Century, the question of the holy places became a political contention, especially between France and Russia. France obtained the exclusive protection of the rights of Catholic Christians, while Russia obtained the protection of the rights of Orthodox Christians. Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox obtained a firman for the restoration of the Tomb in the Holy Sepulcher, which had been almost completely destroyed by fire 1808. The restoration defaced the Crusader work on the Tomb.
1829, the rights of the Armenian Orthodox in the Basilica come to be permanently recognized, as they were becoming a large part of the civil service of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1847, the Greek Orthodox removed the silver star situated at the place of the birth of the Lord in the Grotto of Bethlehem. The star contained a Latin inscription that attested to the Latin proprietorship of the site
In 1852, the French ambassador to the Sublime Porte, in behalf of the Catholic powers, demanded the restoration of the rights of the Franciscan Custody as granted prior to 1767, and the relocation of the star.
Upon pressure from Tsar Nicholas, the Ottoman Emperor refused and promulgated a decree by which he declared the status quo (i.e., the situation in force from 1767) was to be maintained.
The star was replaced, but from that time on, despite repeated attempts and successive wars, the situation remains unchanged. Even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the British Mandate, the status quo has seen little modification.
This situation is today considered a matter of fact.