Christians celebrate Holy Fire in Jerusalem on eve of Orthodox Easter

By Yemeli Ortega

Jerusalem, Apr 15 (EFE).- Christians flocked Saturday to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in East Jerusalem for the ceremony of the Holy Fire, held annually on the eve of Orthodox Easter at the site where – according to tradition – Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The flame, believed by the faithful to be of miraculous origin, was extracted from the tomb by the Orthodox patriarch of the Holy Land, Theophilos III, who lit 33 candles, one for each year that Jesus lived.

Those candles were then passed through the crowd of 2,200 allowed inside the church.

“Christ is risen!,” worshippers exclaimed in Arabic, Latin, Russian, and other languages, once the entire sanctuary was illuminated.

Palestinian Christians later lit the tapers of the worshippers gathered outside on the streets of the Old City, and the flame will be carried via aircraft to countries with large Orthodox communities, such as Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania.

“I can’t explain the experience with words, I thank God for the blessing,” Katarina Jovanovich, who traveled to Jerusalem from Serbia for the occasion, said after taking part in the ceremony.

Israel, which seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, deployed thousands of police and soldiers to control the crowds.

“Our only priority is safety and to preserve human life,” police spokesman Dean Elsdunne told EFE, adding that the decision to limit the number of people inside the church to 2,200 was based on the recommendation of an independent expert.

But the Orthodox patriarchate rejected that explanation and urged “all Christians, local and pilgrims,” to participate in Saturday’s rite at the Sepulcher, which in the past has held as many as 10,000 people for the Holy Fire.

Viral videos show Israeli cops and soldiers pushing and even punching Christians trying to approach the church.

“They are not allowing freedom of worship,” said Fadi Haddat, a 44-year-old Palestinian man accompanied by his wife and son.

More than 100 people have died so far this year in violence between Israel and the Palestinians and tensions have been high in Jerusalem’s Old City as 2023 marks a rare coincidence of Orthodox Easter with Jewish Passover and the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan.

Last week, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque on two successive nights, arrested hundreds of Muslims who defied authorities’ ban on their spending nights inside the mosque in line with Ramadan customs.

Palestinians responded by launching rockets from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, leading in turn to Israeli airstrikes.

On Wednesday, Israeli authorities revoked travel permits from more than 700 Palestinian Christians living in Gaza who had planned to spend Orthodox Easter in East Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel is not recognized by most of the world’s nations.

Aloof from the tumult and political conflict, a Romanian nun told EFE inside the Holy Sepulcher: “The light of Christ illuminated my heart.”

Eusebius, a fourth century Christian bishop in Syria revered as the Father of Church History, wrote that the Holy Fire ceremony took place for the first time in AD 328.

EFE yo/dr

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