Christians celebrate Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem after row with Israeli police

Many pilgrims who arrived hours ahead of the ceremony were not permitted by police to enter the church

Christians participate in the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 23. AFP
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Thousands of Christians marked Orthodox Easter on Saturday with the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem, after church leaders slammed Israeli authorities for restricting the annual celebration.

Flames lit up the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after clergymen brought the Holy Fire out of Jesus’ tomb, which Christians believe is sparked miraculously each year.

Pilgrims cheered, sang and wept at the ceremony, as they passed the flame with candles, before it was carried out into the Old City.

Firefighters were stationed throughout the holy site, as the flames raised the temperature and smoke billowed upwards into the dome.

“It was so beautiful, I saw how the light arrives,” said Liliana Anechietei, 60, on a pilgrimage from Italy.

Carrying candles, Ms Anechietei remarked how many police checks there were and “a lot of shoving” as Christians tried to access the church.

“It’s terrible, I’ve never seen so many police officers in my life like here. Ever,” she said.

Israel has policed the Old City since its occupation of East Jerusalem started in 1967, following the Arab-Israeli war.

This year the force imposed a limit of 1,7000 worshippers at the Holy Fire ceremony, church leaders said, a move which has sparked a weeks-long quarrel.

“The police’s argument that restricting the number of worshippers due to ‘public safety’ concerns lacks any logical basis,” the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said this week, dismissing any attendance limits.

The police did not immediately confirm how many of the faithful were allowed to attend the event, which often attracts more than 10,000 pilgrims.

The restrictions come a year after 45 Jewish worshippers were crushed to death at a religious event in Mount Meron, northern Israel.

Israeli officials rejected a request by the Orthodox Patriarchate to not put up barriers in the alleys of the Old City. Many pilgrims who arrived hours ahead of the ceremony were not permitted by police to enter the church.

“It’s worse. Every year is worse than the last one,” said Edmond Attallah, a Christian resident of the Old City, criticising the restrictions by Israeli security forces.

“This is really catastrophic,” said the 39-year-old, carrying a wooden cross. “They are stronger than us. But Our Lord is stronger than everyone, so we give him all our passion.”

Following the Jerusalem ceremony, the Holy Fire is traditionally taken to Orthodox communities throughout the Holy Land and internationally.

A priest from the Orthodox Patriarchate said he was certain the fire would reach Ukraine, two months after Russia invaded the eastern European nation, without giving details of its journey.

Scuffles briefly broke out between worshippers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, after a Russian and a Ukrainian flag were raised in the crowd.

Six Christian denominations have shared the church for hundreds of years and must take joint decisions on any changes at the holy site.

They include yielding to a police request to open doors during this year’s Holy Fire ceremony, in case of an emergency.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 5:03 AM