Thousands of local and international Christian pilgrims thronged to Jerusalem's Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the ancient Eastern rite ceremony of the Holy Fire April 15, with some scuffles reported as Israeli police restricted the number of people able to reach the church.
Celebrated for over 1,000 years on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter, as reported by Christian historian Eusebius in A.D. 328, the Orthodox Christian ceremony involves the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, along with an Armenian Orthodox bishop, entering the Edicule where, tradition holds, Jesus’ tomb is located. There, according to the tradition, a fire is mysteriously produced, which the patriarch uses to light two sets of candle bundles.
As the lit fire is passed out from a window in the tomb and the main entrance, church bells ring out and the crowd bursts into joyous cries of: "Christ is risen, he has arisen indeed." In seconds, the fire from the candles is used to light candles held by the Christian faithful who have been waiting inside the packed basilica for hours and the basilica is lit by thousands of little flames -- and, in modern time, cell phones -- recording the whole proceedings.
The candle torches are rushed outside where they are taken to light special lamps held by waiting dignitaries from Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and other Eastern Orthodox countries who then fly to their respective countries to share the fire there. The first church to see the Holy Fire arriving in Ukraine was the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Lutsk April 16.
Lit torches also are carried through the Old City and taken to local Palestinian parishes.
From early morning, Jerusalem’s Old City was closed and entrance was restricted to those with permits from the churches, with metal barricades sealing off alleys leading to the Christian Quarter as, according to a police statement, hundreds of police were deployed throughout the Old City.
"It is sad for me that I cannot get to the church, where my heart, my faith, wants me to be," Jelena Novakovic from Montenegro told The Associated Press. Like thousands of others, she was trapped behind metal barricades that sealed off alleys leading to the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem's walled Old City.
Several social media posts showed video recordings of Christian pilgrims including foreign diplomats arguing, and in some cases, scuffling with police to get through, with one particular violent incident involving the shoving of a Coptic priest against a wall.
In previous years, as many as 10,000 worshippers could celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony inside the church, while this year, police had limited attendance to 1,800 people inside and 1,200 outside, citing safety reasons.
Pilgrims also gathered on the roof of the church, and in locations in the Old City where the police had placed shading and large TV screens where the ceremony was broadcast live.
Police said they arrested one person for assaulting police officers. AP reported some 2,000 police present in the Old City and other incidents of confrontation including Israeli police dragging and beating several worshippers and tackling one woman to the ground.
Tensions over security restrictions of the ceremony have been growing over the past 10 years.
Israel police maintain they must uphold safety precautions in the basilica, roof top and its outside courtyard with its limited capacity while local Christians charge Israel with harming their freedom to worship.
Inside the basilica the number of pilgrims swelled, with local Christians as well as Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt singing, chanting, drumming and waving flags enthusiastically in the hours-long lead-up to the ceremony, as Eastern European Orthodox pilgrims, nuns and monks looked on in the crowded rotunda.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Rashad Hussain, observing the ceremony from atop the central point of the church, the tomb of Jesus, wrote on Twitter: "Powerful time to be in the Holy Land with Easter, Passover, and Ramadan converging."
Earlier in the week the coordination for the ceremony had caused friction between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, supported by the Armenian Patriarchate and Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, and the police. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch issued a letter saying the police were being "heavy-handed" with restrictions infringing on freedom of worship.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has only one entrance/exit. Though no accidents have occurred in over 200 years, in 1808 a fire severely damaged the dome of the rotunda and dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death, and in 1834 a fire during the Holy Fire ceremony reportedly also killed hundreds of pilgrims.
Police said they were enforcing the safety measures following a tragedy two years ago during a Jewish pilgrimage to a holy site in the northern Mount Meron where 45 Jewish worshippers were killed in a crowd crush.
The ceremony came at the culmination of a week that saw the coinciding celebrations of Ramadan, Passover and Western Easter marred by violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque at what is known by Muslims as the Haram al Sharif and by Jews as the Temple Mount where the two biblical temples stood, and also two terrorist attacks that left a British-Israeli mother and her two daughters and an Italian tourist dead.