Christians mark Holy Fire rite on eve of Easter

In one incident, UN envoy says Palestinian Christians were prevented from entering Church of Holy Sepulcher

Christian worshippers gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City on April 19, 2014 (Gali Tibbon/AFP)
Christian worshippers gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City on April 19, 2014 (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

Thousands of Christian pilgrims thronged the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City Saturday amid tight security to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony on the eve of Easter.

Believers hold that a divine fire from heaven ignites a flame in the church, built on the site where many Christians say Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The flame is then passed between worshipers, candle to candle.

The crowd roared as the Holy Fire was lit, in an ancient annual rite dating to the 4th century AD to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, an AFP correspondent said.

The church filled with smoke from the flames, and scuffles also broke out between priests and pilgrims jostling to get a better view.

Worshipers from various Christian denominations then processed through the church as pilgrims filed outside to a clamor of church bells.

Earlier, police enforced tight security and crowd control measures to keep worshipers from surging into the church.

An Israeli police spokeswoman said tens of thousands of Christians attended the ceremony, packing the church and its surroundings.

Pilgrims had to elbow their way through Damascus Gate, as all other entrances to the Old City were closed for security reasons for several hours, trapping some worshipers outside the walls.

UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry issued a statement denouncing what he called an “incident” before the ceremony.

He said he and other diplomats visited the Easter procession to the church at the invitation of Jerusalem’s Christian Arab community.

The procession was stopped at a security checkpoint before the church “despite earlier assurances… of unhindered access,” Serry said.

“The Israeli police refused to allow such entry claiming they had orders to that effect. A precarious standoff ensued, ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through.”

After the ceremony, the Holy Fire was passed between worshipers in a procession to nearby Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity where Jesus is believed to have been born.

The flame will also be flown out to Greece and other Orthodox countries.

The Church of the Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s holiest sites, is shared by six denominations — the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.

The Holy Fire ceremony, a high moment in the Eastern Christian calendar, was attended by pilgrims from around the world.

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