Christian worshippers thronged the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Saturday to celebrate the ceremony of the “Holy Fire,” an ancient, mysterious ritual that has sparked tensions this year with the Israeli police.
In the annual ceremony that has persisted for over a millennium, a flame — kindled in some miraculous way in the heart of Jesus’ tomb — is used to light the candles of fervent believers in Greek Orthodox communities near and far. Little by little, the darkened church is irradiated by tiny patches of light, which eventually illuminate the whole building as the resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed. Chartered planes then ferry the flickering lanterns to Russia, Greece and beyond with great fanfare.
Many trying to get to the church — built on the site where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected — were thrilled to mark the pre-Easter rite in the city where it all started. But for the second consecutive year, Israel’s limits on event capacity dimmed some of the exuberance.
“It is sad for me that I cannot get to the church, where my heart, my faith, wants me to be,” said 44-year-old Jelena Novakovic from Montenegro.
Israel has capped the ritual — normally an experience of being squeezed among multilingual, suffocating crowds — to just 1,800 people. The Israeli police say they must be strict because they’re responsible for maintaining public safety. In 1834, a stampede at the event claimed hundreds of lives. Two years ago, a crush at a packed Jewish holy site in the country’s north killed 45 people. Authorities say they’re determined to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.
But Jerusalem’s Christian minority — mired in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and caught between Jews and Muslims — fear Israel is using the extra security measures to alter their status in the Old City, providing access to Jews while limiting the number of Christian worshippers.
Israeli authorities and church officials have publicly quarreled over the crowd constraints for the past week. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate has lambasted the restrictions as a hindrance of religious freedom and called on all worshippers to flood the church despite Israeli warnings.
As early as 8 a.m., Israeli police were already turning back most worshippers from the gates of the Old City — including foreign tourists who flew from Europe and Palestinian Christians who traveled from across the West Bank — directing them to an overflow area with a livestream.
Angry pilgrims and clergy jostled to get through while police struggled to hold them back, allowing only a trickle of ticketed visitors and local residents near the church. Metal barricades sealed off alleys leading to the Christian Quarter. Over 2,000 police officers swarmed the stone ramparts.
A few Palestinian teenagers from the neighborhood saw a chance to make a buck, promising tourists they’d get them into the church for some 200 shekels ($54) but leading them only to a nearby courtyard before asking for more money.
Ana Dumitrel, a Romanian pilgrim surrounded by police outside the Old City, said she came to pay tribute to her late mother, whose experience witnessing the holy fire in 1987 long inspired her.
“I wanted to tell my family, my children, that I was here as my mom was,” she said, straining to assess whether she had a chance.
The dispute comes as Christians in the Holy Land — including the head of the Roman Catholic church in the region as well as local Palestinians and Armenians — say that 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’s committed to ensuring freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims and portrays itself as an island of tolerance in the Middle East.
The friction over Saturday’s Orthodox Easter ritual has been fueled in part by a rare convergence of holidays in Jerusalem’s bustling Old City. A few hundred meters away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Muslims fasting for the 24th day of the holy month of Ramadan were gathering for midday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Earlier this week, tens of thousands of Jews flocked to the Western Wall for a mass prayer during the Passover holiday.
Tensions surged last week, when an Israeli police raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Jerusalem’s most sensitive site, set off unrest in the contested capital and ignited Muslim outrage around the world. The mosque stands on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who revere it as the Temple Mount.
Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of the city’s eastern half, in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
In the limestone passageways on Saturday, Christians pushed back by police were trying to cope with their disappointment. Cristina Maria, a 35-year-old who traveled from Romania to see the light kindled from the holy fire, said there was some consolation in the thought that the flame was symbolic, anyway.
“It’s the light of Christ,” she said, standing between an ice cream parlor and a dumpster in the Old City. “We can see it from here, there, anywhere.”
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