JERUSALEM (AP) — Christians celebrated the “holy fire” ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Saturday amid growing tensions with Israel, which imposed new attendance restrictions this year that it says will were necessary for safety.
Israel says it wants to prevent another disaster after a stampede at a crowded Jewish holy site last year left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there is no need to change a ceremony that has been taking place for centuries.
In the dense confines of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims must share their holiest sites – however reluctant they may be – even small changes can cause prophetic angst.
The city has already seen a week of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in the nearby compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. It stands on a hill which is the holiest site for the Jews, who call it 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 of the three faiths for the first time since pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a sprawling 12th-century basilica built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Each year, the Greek Patriarch enters the Holy Aedicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of the tomb, and returns with a lighted lantern, passing the flame from candle to candle among thousands of people, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame is then transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights.
The source of the holy fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, and nerd skeptics dating back to the Middle Ages have scorned it as a carnival ride for the masses.
Two years ago the church was nearly empty due to a coronavirus lockdown, but Israel made special arrangements for the flame to be carried overseas. Hundreds of people attended last year, when travel restrictions were in place and the ceremony was limited to fully vaccinated people.
This year, Israel says it is enforcing a security law that limits crowd size based on space and number of exits. Authorities say they want to prevent a repeat of last year’s stampede on Mount Meron in northern Israel during a religious holiday attended by about 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
It was one of the worst disasters in the country’s history and the authorities were heavily criticized for alleged negligence.
“There’s never a problem until there’s a problem, and that’s what happened last year in Meron,” said Tania Berg-Rafaeli, director of interreligious affairs. at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
If something were to happen to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “we would have to take responsibility for it, and we want to avoid any problems,” she said.
Authorities said they would allow a total of 4,000 people to attend the holy fire ceremony, including 1,800 inside the church itself, which has a single large entrance with an elevated step. Berg-Rafaeli said Israeli authorities have been in close contact with churches and will revise the quota upwards next year if more doors in the basilica can be opened.
“It’s totally a matter of safety and nothing else at all,” she said.
Church leaders have rejected all restrictions on principle, saying they infringe on religious freedom. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like Al-Aqsa, is governed by a decades-old set of informal arrangements known as the status quo. As in Al-Aqsa, seemingly minor violations sparked violence, including notorious fights between monks of different faiths.
In a statement released earlier this month, the Greek Patriarchate said it was “fed up with police restrictions on freedom of worship”.
“The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has decided, by the power of the Lord, that it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares,” he said. “Prayers will take place as usual.” The Patriarchy says up to 11,000 people attend in normal years.
Police cordoned off the main entrances to the Christian Quarter with barricades. Large crowds jostled for entry, as police waved to a trickle of local residents and a few foreign tourists.
The ceremony, which dates back at least 1,200 years, has not always been peaceful.
In 1834, a frenzied stampede broke out in the darkened church, and the ruler of the Holy Land at the time narrowly escaped after his guards drew swords and fought their way through the crowd, says the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his history of Jerusalem. Some 400 pilgrims died in the melee, most from suffocation or trampling.
Israel says it is committed to ensuring freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and has long presented itself as an island of tolerance in the Middle East.
In recent years, however, tensions have risen with the local Christian community, most of whom are Palestinian Christians, a population that has steadily shrunk over decades of conflict as many have sought economic opportunity abroad. foreign.
Israel captured East Jerusalem – which includes the historic Old City and its religious sites – as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestinians want the three territories for a future state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel annexed East Jerusalem soon after the war in an internationally unrecognized move, and considers the entire city its unified capital.
In recent years, the Greek patriarchy has been locked in a legal battle with a group of Jewish settlers over the sale of three properties in the Old City, including two Palestinian-run hotels. The patriarchy says it has evidence of corruption in the disputed 2004 sale.
Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the sale in 2019, ruling in favor of Ateret Cohanim, an Israeli organization that seeks to expand the Jewish presence in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Settlers took over part of one of the hotels – a popular hostel for backpackers – last month. Christian leaders have denounced the move, accusing them of trying to change the religious character of Jerusalem’s Christian quarter.
Frustration could be felt outside the new gate leading to the Christian Quarter on Saturday, as people jostled with police to enter, lifting strollers and small children over the barricades as some were agitated.
“It’s like this every year and every year there’s a different excuse,” said Dr Muna Mushahwar, a doctor who argued with police as they tried to arrange entry to a foreign delegation.
“They don’t want Christians here. The more you push people, the more frustrated they get, and then they leave.
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