Christians celebrated their “Holy Fire” ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday against a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this year that it said were needed for safety.
Israel says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy site last year left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.
In the dense confines of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims must share their holiest sites — no matter how reluctantly — even small changes can cause prophetic angst.
The city has already seen a week of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam. It stands on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
This year major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged against a backdrop of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. Tensions have soared as tens of thousands of people flock to Jerusalem’s Old City to visit some of the holiest sites for all three faiths for the first time since the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
Thousands on Saturday celebrated the traditional "Holy Fire" ceremony of blazing candles at Christianity's holiest site in Jerusalem to mark the eve of Orthodox Easter.
Tens of thousands of faithful have attended the ceremony in earlier years but coronavirus constraints severely limited attendance on the past two occasions.
This year, joyous, shouting faithful crowded together unmasked, holding aloft wads of thin candles bound together to produce thick orange flames that danced inside the darkened Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The church is built on the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Israel's Foreign Ministry gave a crowd estimate of thousands, who celebrated in a tense Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces at the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lies in east Jerusalem, occupied and later annexed by Israel following the Six-Day War of 1967.
Worshippers had waited from the morning hours with candles in hand. They cheered with excitement and bells rang in the early afternoon when Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III exited the Edicule, traditionally believed to be Christ's burial place, holding burning candles.
The flames spread from believer to believer, filling the ancient church with light.
Anthony Botros, who came all the way from Canada, said that being able to participate in the ceremony was "honestly surreal."
"I would not have imagined I would ever be here. It's something you can't describe. You just have to be there and experience it. Just tears. So peaceful," the 25-year-old told AFP.
Church leaders had initially been at odds with Israel over the event's size, after authorities sought to limit the number of participants to ensure their safety.
The Patriarchate petitioned the police decision at the Supreme Court, with a compromise allowing 4,000 believers to attend the ceremony in the church and square outside, a police spokeswoman told AFP.
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church.
Christians made up more than 18 percent of the population of the Holy Land when Israel was founded in 1948, but now form less than two percent, mostly Orthodox.
(with inputs from agencies)