JERUSALEM – Throngs of Orthodox Christians filled Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher and surrounding streets Saturday for the “Holy Fire” ceremony on the eve of Orthodox Easter.
In an annual rite dating back to the fourth century symbolizing the resurrection of Christ, believers hold that a divine fire from heaven ignites candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch.
Israeli police deployed in large numbers to secure an estimated 10,000 faithful packed into the church, with a similar number in the streets around the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The event, the highlight of the Eastern Christian calendar, was attended by pilgrims from around the world — predominantly Eastern Europe — as well as Arab Israelis, all carrying unlit candles.
Greek Patriarch Theophilos III made his traditional grand entry at the head of a procession of monks, chanters and dignitaries with red and gold banners bearing icons. After circling the shrine in the heart of the church three times, he and the Armenian patriarch entered Jesus’ supposed burial site, emerging minutes later with a lit candle.
The holy flame was swiftly passed from candle to candle between ecstatic believers, most of whom had waited for hours for the ceremony, which filled the air with light and smoke.
Some pilgrims passed their hands through the fire, saying it did not burn them.
The Holy Fire was passed outside to the crowds who were watching the ceremony on huge screens, and was then taken to nearby Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, and also flown out to Orthodox countries.
While the Church of the Sepulcher is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, it is shared uneasily by six denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.
In the past, fist fights have broken out among monks from the different denominations over perceived changes to the fragile status quo hammered out over the centuries.
Roman Catholics in Jerusalem and Bethlehem celebrated Easter on March 31, according to the Gregorian calendar.
But this year other Catholics in the Holy Land, including those from Nazareth, decided for the first time to mark Easter on Sunday under the Orthodox calendar, in an act of ecumenical unity.
The Palestine Liberation Organization denounced Israel for causing “countless difficulties” for Palestinian Christians and Muslims to reach their holy sites Saturday.
“Even Palestinians from Jerusalem were beaten when trying to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” said Hanna Amireh, head of the Presidential Committee on Church Affairs.
The PLO said Israeli police stopped a visit organized by Palestinian Christian groups with foreign diplomats and the governor for the Quds (Jerusalem) Governorate, as they tried to enter the Old City of Jerusalem.