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Orthodox Christians celebrate Holy Fire ritual in Jerusalem amid tensions in the holy city

Orthodox Christian worshippers take part in the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City during Orthodox Easter holiday, April 15, 2023. (Photo: Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Orthodox Christians on Saturday celebrated their annual Holy Fire ritual in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre amid growing religious tensions in Jerusalem. 

The Holy Fire ceremony has been practiced at the Holy Sepulchre for hundreds of years. On the Saturday before Easter, the Greek Orthodox patriarch and an Armenian priest remain in the tomb for the duration of the hours-long service.

The Orthodox believe the light of the resurrected Christ pierces the tomb and lights a candle. That flame is then passed around by the priests inside the tomb to all the people in the church holding bundled candles, lighting up the building.

Candles ignited from this flame are driven to Bethlehem and flown to the Orthodox churches overseas including Greece.

Due to safety concerns, the Israel Police set a limit on the number of visitors to the church, with only about 1,800 Christian worshippers allowed into the church this year compared to some 10,000 visitors in previous years. 

The Greek Orthodox patriarchate decried the Israeli authorities as “unreasonable” in their restrictions on the number of visitors to the church. 

"After many attempts made in goodwill, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions," said Father Mattheos Siopis from the Greek Orthodox Church. 

"These heavy-handed restrictions will limit access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony," added Siopis.

Church officials have urged worshippers to ignore the restrictions and congregate in larger numbers than officially permitted. 

Yoram Segal, an official from the Jerusalem district police, stressed that the Israeli authorities are concerned about the safety of the Christian pilgrims entering Jerusalem’s Old City amid recent tensions on the Temple Mount between Muslim rioters and Israeli security forces. 

"I wish to emphasize that our main concern is the safety of the pilgrimage that are coming to the Old City. The numbers were provided by the safety engineer,” Segal said. “We understand the feeling, the religious feelings of people that want to participate in this Holy Light ceremony. But unfortunately not everyone can enter the church because of the safety regulation.”

Israel is known as one of the safest Middle Eastern nations for Christian minorities; however, in January, local Christians reportedly were put on edge after extremists wrote on the walls of the Jerusalem Old City “Death to Christians.”

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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