The Old City of Jerusalem was closed down overnight Friday, with security forces blocking the entrances to the walled area in anticipation of the annual Easter rite which draws thousands of Christian pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Jews were permitted to enter the Western Wall compound as usual.
The pilgrims, along with local Christians, were to light candles and torches from a flame that emerges from the tomb of Jesus inside the historic church.
The ancient fire ritual celebrates the Messiah’s resurrection.
During the annual ceremony, top clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb. They emerge after some time to reveal candles lit with “holy fire” — said to be miraculously lit as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.
Some believing Christians seek to spread the holy fire around the world — symbolizing the light of Christ and his resurrection after death.
For many of them, the day is the pinnacle of Easter celebrations. Eastern Orthodox churches and several others celebrate Easter this week using the older Julian calendar.
The holy fire ritual, which has been practiced for at least 1,200 years, is particularly risky, because the cavernous, winding Sepulcher church has only one exit — the main door. Ambulances cannot reach the area.
Despite the crowds, the open flames, and the single exit, there has been only one recorded major deadly incident linked to the ritual. In 1834, according to English traveler Robert Curzon, panicked pilgrims prompted a stampede trying to leave the church, and several hundred people were crushed or suffocated to death in the attempt.
But the six Christian sects that stake claim to different sections of the church have been reluctant to build an emergency exit or a fire escape. The sometimes feuding rivals don’t want to give up any of their staked-out real estate to construct a second exit.