Jerusalem Churches refuse Israeli restrictions on annual Easter vigil

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  April 13, 2023

Church leaders denounced Israel’s “heavy-handed restrictions” limiting access to Jerusalem for Orthodox Easter. “All who wish to worship with us are invited to attend,” they said. “With that made clear, we leave the authorities to act as they will.”

In an act of defiance, Heads of Churches in Jerusalem released a statement earlier this week denouncing “heavy-handed restrictions [that] will limit access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Light Ceremony” scheduled for Saturday, the eve of Orthodox Easter. 

“This year, after many attempts made in good will,” church leaders said, “we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities, as they are enforcing unreasonable and unprecedented restriction on access to the Holy Sepulchre.”

The statement, issued by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Latin Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate, follows many joint statements in recent years pointing to a growing threat to the Christian community in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land.

Haaretz reported that by Wednesday, Israeli police had agreed to increase the number of worshippers from 1,800 to 2,200 along with 1,000 to be allowed in the church courtyard and on its roof—far below the 10,000 in attendance in recent years. Previous plans to place 200 officers inside the church and to erect barriers throughout the Old City limiting access to the church remain in place.

On Thursday, according to Haaretz, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry condemned Israel’s decision, warned against the restrictions, and “reject[ed] all measures taken by Israel to restrict freedom of worship.”

In a press release from the World Council of Churches, General Secretary Dr. Jerry Pillay said, “These restrictions affecting the Holy Fire ceremony are seen by the churches and Holy Land Christians as unnecessary and of profound impact on their religious freedom, spiritual wellbeing and morale.” 

Pillay quoted from an earlier statement by Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate who had said, “[i]mpeding the religious freedom of our Christian communities is yet another example of the hostile environment face by Christians in the Holy Land, life as a Christian is becoming increasingly untenable.”

The National, a publication in the UAE, also reported that Israel has canceled the nearly 700 permits previously issued to Christians in blockaded Gaza, allowing them to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. Gaza’s approximately 1,000 Christians worship in three churches: St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church, Gaza Baptist Church for Evangelical and Protestant Christians, and the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church.

Saint Porphyrios reported on its Facebook page that it had been informed of the cancellations by the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs. Israel has not yet explained the cancellations.

These cancellations—along with Israel’s restrictions on Christians’ access to the Old City and limits to Saturday’s church attendance–may not be directly related to tensions created by Israeli police’s violent incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque last week. But Christians point to recent Israeli practices and violent acts on the part of Jewish extremists—met with virtual impunity by Israeli authorities—that are gradually, systematically shutting them out of the Old City in violation of status quo arrangements agreed to by the three faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

When asked by Mondoweiss to respond, Mae Cannon, Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), said, “Placing such a severe limitation on worship during one of the holiest times for Christians is unacceptable.” CMEP is a coalition of more than 30 North American churches and organizations working to encourage U.S. policies that promote comprehensive resolutions to Middle East conflicts.  Cannon continued, “CMEP calls on the U.S. government to directly intervene with the relevant Israeli authorities to ensure these restrictions are lifted and the freedom to worship for all communities in Jerusalem is respected.” 

The Holy Fire ritual, practiced for centuries, is a Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. During the ritual, patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches enter a small room above what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus. They emerge with candles believed to have been lit by a miracle. The flames are shared with worshippers, illuminating the dark walls of the church, then taken by the faithful to churches around the Holy Land.

In their defiant statement, leaders of the three historic churches said, “The celebration of the Holy Light Ceremony is a great moment that ties the faithful to the light of Jesus Christ… The ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend. With that made clear, we leave the authorities to act as they will. The Churches will freely worship and do so in peace.”

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)