Church: Israel infringing on freedoms by limiting attendance at ‘Holy Fire’ event

Greek Orthodox Church criticizes ‘heavy-handed’ restrictions that police have enacted for a second year at Church of the Holy Sepulchre citing public safety

File: Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Saturday, April 23, 2022 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)
File: Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Saturday, April 23, 2022 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused the Israel Police of infringing on the freedom of worshipers with “heavy-handed” restrictions on how many pilgrims can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony amid soaring tensions.

Police said the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s celebration at Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the 12th-century holy site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected.

Saturday’s “Holy Fire” celebration comes during an unusual spate of violence in the Old City, which has seen clashes between police and Muslim worshipers at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, the Temple Mount compound that’s home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The tensions spiraled into a regional confrontation between Israel and Hamas, and were punctuated Friday when two British-Israeli sisters and their mother were killed after their car came under fire near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The mother succumbed to her wounds on Monday.

Israel, which imposed similar restrictions on the “Holy Fire” event last year, says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy site in 2021 left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.

In a statement released Thursday, police said the cap on crowd size was not their initiative. The force called the limitation a “necessary safety requirement” set by a safety engineer to prevent a potentially deadly stampede.

“The Israel Police will enforce the safety engineer’s instructions and expects cooperation from church leaders and organizers,” a statement from police said.

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greek patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of Jesus’s tomb, and emerges with two lit candles. He passes the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame 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 the police over their “heavy-handed” restrictions had failed.

“After many attempts made in good will, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulchre,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said. The restrictions “will limit access to the Christians, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony.”

File: Orthodox Christians mark Palm Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected, in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 17, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Police officials acknowledged that they are increasing security and blocking some routes into the dense Old City and that attendance is limited in 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 during a conference call that police’s top priority is safety on a day when Muslims, Christians and Jews are celebrating their own holidays in the square-kilometer (square-half mile) Old City.

“We are going to regulate the movement of crowds,” Segal said, adding that the ceremony will be available throughout the city on video screens and that meetings with the churches are ongoing.

Since the rise this year of Israel’s most right-wing government in history, Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under increasing attack.

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