Contradicting allegations by church leaders earlier this week that Israel Police was unnecessarily infringing on Christians’ freedom of worship, a letter reviewed by The Times of Israel on Friday indicates that restrictions on Saturday’s Holy Fire ceremony were imposed at the request of a Greek Orthodox official.
The April 3 letter, sent to the police station outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by church architect Teo Metropoulos, stresses that the maximum number of visitors for the ceremony should be 1,800 inside the building and 200 more in the courtyard.
The letter also emphasizes that “the only entrance to the church has an opening of 3 meters without any other dangerous [sic] exit,” and asks police to keep all internal corridors open.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The office of the church’s Architect of the Common Technical Office similarly did not respond to attempts to verify the authenticity of the document.
On Wednesday, the Greek Orthodox Church said Israeli limits on the number of worshipers were “heavy-handed” and that attempts at negotiations 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 told reporters. The restrictions “will limit access to the Christians, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony.
Police responded that the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s celebration at the 12th-century holy site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
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.
Israel, which imposed similar restrictions on the “Holy Fire” event last year, says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd crush 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.
Saturday’s celebration comes during a rise 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 is 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 by Palestinian terrorists in the northern Jordan Valley. The mother succumbed to her wounds on Monday.
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.
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, as the letter indicates.
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.
AP contributed to this report.