Virus empties Jerusalem church hosting annual ‘fire’ ritual

Christian clerics performed the rite inside a Jerusalem church that is usually packed to the rafters for the annual event.

By Associated Press

A small group of Christian clerics celebrated an annual fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Saturday as the coronavirus pandemic prevented worshipers from taking part in the ritual.

They entered the Edicule, a chamber built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after being crucified. They emerged with candles lit by a fire that the faithful view as a divine message. The source of the flame is a “secret.”

The clergymen, from different Orthodox denominations, then circled around inside the empty church, chanting prayers that echoed off the walls.

In previous years, the church would be packed with pilgrims, each holding candles and passing the light around until it illuminated the centuries-old walls. The ceremony, along with other events in the week leading up to Easter, was scaled back due to a ban on public gatherings to thwart the spread of the coronavirus.

Israel has reported more than 13,200 coronavirus infections and 164 deaths as of Saturday evening The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

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Israel made special arrangements with church leaders to allow the flame to be carried abroad to other Orthodox communities. Because anyone entering Israel must go into quarantine, foreign dignitaries coming to pick up the flame would receive it in special containers on their planes and immediately return home.

Late on Saturday, Orthodox clerics carried flames onto several aircraft at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, which then flew the flames to countries including Greece and Russia.

The Holy Fire ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. Orthodox churches celebrate Easter this week.