JERUSALEM (AP) – Christian worshipers gathered Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to celebrate the “Holy Fire” ceremony, an ancient ritual that has sparked tensions with Israeli police this year.
In an annual ceremony that has been held for more than a millennium, flames taken from Jesus’ tomb are used to light the candles of fervent believers in Greek Orthodox communities nearby and beyond. The devout believe that the origin of the flame is a miracle and shrouded in mystery.
On Saturday, after hours of frantic anticipation, the priest reached into the dark tomb and lit his candle. Each neighbor passed the light on to the other and, little by little, the darkened church was irradiated by tiny specks of light, which eventually lit up the entire building.
The bells rang. “Christ is risen!” the multilingual worshipers shouted. “He is risen indeed!”
Many trying to get to the church – built on the site where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected – were delighted to mark the Orthodox Easter Sunday rites in Jerusalem. But for the second year in a row, Israel’s strict restrictions on the event’s capacity dampened some of the exuberance.
“I’m sad that I can’t get to the church, where my heart and my faith want me to be,” said 44-year-old Jelena Novaković from Montenegro, who, like thousands of others, was trapped behind metal barricades. which closed the alleys leading to the Christian quarter in the walled Old City of Jerusalem.
In some cases, the pushing turned violent. The video shows Israeli police dragging and beating several worshipers, pushing a Coptic priest against a stone wall and knocking a woman to the ground. At least one elderly man was put into an ambulance, bleeding.
Israel limited the ritual to only 1,800 people. Israeli police say they have to be strict because they are responsible for maintaining public safety. In 1834, a stampede at the event claimed hundreds of lives. Two years ago, 45 people died in a crush at a crowded Jewish holy site in the north of the country. Authorities say they are determined to prevent the tragedy from happening again.
But Jerusalem’s minority Christians – mired in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and caught between Jews and Muslims – fear that Israel is using the extra security measures to change its status in the Old City, allowing access to Jews while limiting the number of Christians.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate criticized the restrictions as an obstacle to religious freedom and called on all worshipers to flood the church despite Israeli warnings.
As early as 8 a.m., Israeli police were turning away most of the worshipers from the Old City gates – including tourists flown in from Europe and Palestinian Christians traveling from across the occupied West Bank – directing them to the overflow area with a live stream.
Angry pilgrims and clergy rushed through as police struggled to hold them back, allowing only a handful of ticketed visitors and locals inside. Over 2,000 policemen occupied the stone ramparts.
Ana Dumitrel, a Romanian pilgrim surrounded by police outside the Old Town, said she had come to pay her respects to her late mother, whose experience of witnessing the holy fire in 1987 had long inspired her.
“I wanted to tell my family, my kids, that I’m here just like my mom,” she said, straining through the crowd to gauge whether she had a chance.
After the ceremony, Palestinian Christians carried the fire through the streets and lit the lamps of worshipers waiting outside. Chartered planes will transport flickering lanterns to Russia, Greece and beyond with great fanfare.
The dispute over church capacity comes as Christians in the Holy Land — including the head of the region’s Roman Catholic Church, as well as local Palestinians and Armenians — say Israel’s most right-wing government in history has empowered Jewish extremists who have escalated their vandalism of religious property and harassment of clergy. Israel says it is committed to ensuring religious freedom for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Friction over the Orthodox Easter ritual has been fueled in part by the rare confluence of holidays in Jerusalem’s bustling Old City. A few hundred meters away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Muslims fasting on the 24th day of the holy month of Ramadan gathered for noon prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Earlier this week, tens of thousands of Jews flocked to the Western Wall during the Passover holiday.
Tensions rose last week, when an Israeli police raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Jerusalem’s most sensitive site, sparked outrage from Muslims around the world. The mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. It is located on top of a hill that is the holiest place for Jews, who worship it as the Temple Mount.
Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of the eastern half of the city, in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians claim that East Jerusalem is the capital of their hoped-for state.
In its limestone passages on Saturday, Christians pushed back by the police tried to deal with their disappointment. Cristina Maria, a 35-year-old who traveled from Romania to see the light lit by the holy fire, said there was some comfort in thinking the flames were symbolic after all.
“It’s the light of Christ,” she said, standing between a pastry shop and a dumpster in the Old Town. “We can see it from here, there, anywhere.”