Church: Israel limiting rights of ‘Holy Fire’ worshippers

Laurie Kellman & Audrey Horowitz

AP  /  April 12, 2023

JERUSALEM – The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused Israeli police of infringing on the freedom of worshippers with “heavy-handed” restrictions on how many pilgrims can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony amid soaring tensions.

Israeli police said the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s celebration at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Saturday’s “Holy Fire” celebration comes during a recent spate of violence in the Old City, touched off by an Israeli police raid on Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, the compound that’s home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The tensions spiraled into a regional confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, and were punctuated Friday when two British-Israeli sisters and their mother were killed after their car came under fire near a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The mother succumbed to her wounds on Monday.

Israel, which imposed similar restrictions on the “Holy Fire” event last year, says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede in 2021 at a packed Jewish holy site left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Greek patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, and emerges with two lit candles. He passes the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame will be transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights. The source of the Holy Fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, with an abundance of skeptics.

Church officials told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that negotiations with the police over their “heavy-handed” restrictions had failed.

“After many attempts made in good will, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulcher,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said, calling the limitations “heavy-handed.”

“We will hold the ceremony as customary for two millennia and invite all who wish to worship with us to attend,” said Father Mattheos Siopis of the Greek Orthodox Church. “We leave the authorities to act as they will. The churches will freely worship and do so in peace.”

Israeli police officials acknowledged that they are increasing security and blocking some routes into the dense Old City and that attendance is limited in the ancient church and courtyard. But in a conference call with reporters, officials said the attendance limits — 1,800 people inside the church which Greek Orthodox officials said was a fraction of previous years — were set by the church.

Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal of the Jerusalem District Police told reporters during a conference call that the police’s top priority is safety on a day when Muslims, Christians and Jews are celebrating their own holidays in the square-kilometer (square-half mile) Old City.

“We are going to regulate the movement of crowds,” Segal said, adding that the holy fire ceremony will be available throughout the city on video screens and that meetings with the churches are ongoing.

Since the rise this year of Israel’s most right-wing government in history, Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under increasing attack.

Laurie Kellman reported from Tel Aviv