JERUSALEM (AP) — The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused Israeli police of violating worshipers’ freedoms with “heavy-handed” restrictions on how many pilgrims can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony amid the rising tension.
Israeli police said the restrictions were necessary for safety at 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 amid a recent spate of violence in the Old City, which has been affected by Israeli police raids. in Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, the compound that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Tensions erupted into a regional confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, and was punctuated on Friday when two British-Israeli brothers and their mother were killed after their car was fired upon near a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The mother died of her injuries on Monday.
Israel, which imposed similar restrictions on the “Holy Fire” event last year, says it wants to prevent another disaster after a 2021 crowd stampede at a major Jewish holy site killed 45 people. Christian leaders say there is no need to change a ceremony that has been held for centuries.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous fire appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Greek patriarch entered the Holy Edicule, a room built on the traditional burial site of Jesus, and came out with two lighted candles. He passes the flame to thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The fire 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 police over their “heavy-handed” restrictions had failed.
“After many attempts made in good faith, we have been unable to contact the Israeli authorities because they are implementing unreasonable restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulcher,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which was called the limits are “heavy handed.”
“We will hold the ceremony as has been 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 worship freely and do so in peace.”
Israeli police officials have acknowledged that they are increasing security and blocking some routes into the dense Old City and limiting attendance at 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 in a conference call that the police’s top priority is safety on a day when Muslims, Christians and Jews celebrate their own square-kilometer holidays ( square-half mile) Old City.
“We will regulate the movement of people,” Segal said, adding that the holy fire ceremony is available throughout the city on video screens and meetings in churches continue.
Since the rise this year of Israel’s far-right government in history, Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under constant attack.
Kellman reports from Tel Aviv, Israel.