Christians in Jerusalem celebrate the Holy Fire amid fears of clashes with authorities

Thousands of Palestinian worshippers attend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Great Saturday

Orthodox Christian worshippers gather at the rooftop above the Tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. EPA
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The streets of the Old City are locked off as Jerusalem prepares for the Holy Fire ceremony, arguably the most important Christian celebration in the Holy Land.

Thousands of worshippers are marching towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where most solemn moments of the day take place.

The ceremony takes place every year on Great Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter.

Sometime in the afternoon, the Greek Patriarch and Armenian priest will enter Jesus’s tomb to pray. They will then emerge to much fanfare, with the Greek Patriarch holding a flame, the central symbol of the day.

Thousands of pilgrims inside the church will shout in joy and some will cry. Many believe that it is a miracle that lights the Patriarch’s torch.

The flame will then light other torches and spread across the church creating an astonishing sight that is the pinnacle of a joyful Easter.

However, the celebration will be dampened this year by the Gaza War and the difficulties it brings for Christians.

Most people in the church will be Palestinian, who have struggled to celebrate their religious holidays while Gazans suffer.

Many Palestinians who would normally join are also unable to access Jerusalem from the West Bank amid an Israeli ban on crossings in place since October.

Pilgrims from abroad, particularly from Orthodox countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Greece, also cannot come.

The businesses of the Old City, who rely on Easter as one of their main commercial seasons, will not be getting the much-needed sales they have in normal times.

Holy Fire has also taken on a political significance in recent years. Local Christians accuse Israeli authorities of deliberately making Christian worship difficult, in a bid to minimise the presence and viability of their religion in Jerusalem.

Each year, Israeli police put strict controls on the numbers allowed to enter. Tickets are extremely difficult to come by. Soldiers and police are everywhere, often blocking routes, making it hard for worshippers to move freely.

Last year there were clashes at these sites. Israeli authorities say they put these controls in place for crowd control and to protect people in the church, where they say a major fire hazard is present.

These restrictions come against a backdrop of hardships facing Christians in the Holy Land. The community’s numbers are dwindling as many go abroad for a better, easier and more economically prosperous life.

Settlement activity is targeting Christian properties, especially in Jerusalem where a vast swathe of Armenian land is at risk of being developed into a hotel, part of a deal in which locals accuse a corrupt clergy of selling vital, historic land to developers backed up by settlers.

In Gaza, churches have been bombed, putting the already fragile, small community in existential danger.

For all those reasons, it will be a difficult Holy Fire this year, and it remains to be seen whether the day will be further marred by feared major clashes with authorities.

Updated: May 05, 2024, 8:30 AM