Israel-church tensions rise ahead of Jerusalem’s Holy Fire ceremony

After 2021 Meron tragedy, police impose limit on number of participants at ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, raising the ire of church officials.

By Baruch Yedid, TPS

This coming Saturday, Christians will celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but a disagreement between church leaders and the Israeli Police threatens to aggravate tensions in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The disagreement centers on the number of participants allowed to participate in the Holy Fire ceremony, one of the most important in Orthodox Christian practice. In previous years, thousands of worshippers thronged inside and outside the church without restrictions.

But last year, police began enforcing crowd restrictions to prevent a stampede like the 2021 Meron tragedy in which 45 people were killed and 150 more injured.

Like last year, police are restricting the crowd size to 1,800 clergy and worshippers inside the church with another 1,200 in an outside courtyard.

Police said those numbers were based on the size of the church and the number of exits.

The heads of the Roman Orthodox Church, the Latin Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church say the church can safely accommodate 10,000 worshippers.

Dimitri Diliani, President of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land, told the Tazpit Press Service that the restrictions were unilaterally imposed by the police.

“This is not an agreement, as the police claim, but an arbitrary decision of theirs , under the new minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir,” Diliani said.

“We will go in anyway and let the police arrest us by force, in front of the dozens of foreign cameras of Christian media from all over the world.”

Last year, a number of minor scuffles broke out as worshippers tried to push their way past police into the church.

A statement issued by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in coordination with the leaders of other Christian denominations called the restrictions “heavy-handed” and hinted that they would defy the police restrictions.

“We shall continue to uphold the status quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend,” the statement said.

But police officials said they are only concerned about public safety.

“I want to emphasize that our main concern is the safety of the pilgrimage that are coming to the Old City. The numbers were provided by the safety engineer,” who assessed the church,” said Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal of the Jerusalem District Police to reporters.

Segal stressed that Jerusalem’s Old City will be filled with Muslim worshippers marking the Islamic month of Ramadan and Jewish worshippers celebrating the Sabbath the same day .

“We are going to regulate the movement of crowds,” Segal said.

To enforce the crowd size and prevent friction between Christians, Jews and Muslims, the police will set up a number of checkpoints inside Jerusalem’s Old City.

According to Eastern Orthodox Christian belief, a miraculous flame appears inside the church on the Saturday after Good Friday. The Greek Patriarch lights two candles from the flame from which more candles and torches are lit. Special flights transport a number of torches to other Eastern Orthodox countries.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and then raised from the dead. The original church built by Emperor Constantine I was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt in 630.

On March 25, 2020, Israeli health authorities ordered the church closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The church was allowed to reopen on May 24.

The church is administered by the leaders of a various Christian denominations under the terms of a status quo dating back to 1757.