The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused Israeli police of violating the freedom of believers with “hard” limits on the number of pilgrims who can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony amid growing tensions.
Israeli police said the restrictions are necessary to ensure security during Saturday celebrations at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Saturday’s Holy Fire celebration comes during a recent outbreak of violence in the Old City sparked by an Israeli police raid on Jerusalem’s most secret holy site, the complex that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Tensions escalated into regional confrontations between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria and escalated on Friday when two British-Israeli sisters and their mother were killed after their car came under fire near a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The mother died of 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 2021 crowd crush in a crowded venue. Jewish holy place claimed the lives of 45 people. Christian leaders say there is no need to change a ceremony that has been done for centuries.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Greek Patriarch enters the Holy Cuvuklia, a room built on the traditional site of the tomb of Jesus, and exits with two lit candles. He sweeps the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The fire will be delivered to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights. The source of the Holy Fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, with many skeptics.
Church officials told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that talks with the police over their “arbitrary” restrictions were unsuccessful.
“After many attempts in good faith, we are unable to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they impose unreasonable restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulcher,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said, calling the restrictions “arbitrary.”
“We will hold a ceremony, as has been customary for two millennia, and invite everyone who wishes to worship with us,” said Father Matthew Siopis of the Greek Orthodox Church. “We leave the authorities to act as they please. Churches will worship freely and peacefully.”
Israeli police officials have acknowledged that they are tightening security and blocking some routes into the densely populated Old City, with visits to the ancient church and courtyard restricted. But during a conference call with reporters, officials said attendance limits — 1,800 people per church, which Greek Orthodox officials say is a fraction of previous years — were set by the church.
Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal of Jerusalem District Police told reporters during a conference call that the police’s top priority is security on a day when Muslims, Christians and Jews celebrate their own holidays in the half-mile Old City.
“We are going to regulate the movement of the crowd,” Segal said, adding that the sacred fire ceremony will be available throughout the city on video screens and that meetings with churches are ongoing.
Since the rise this year the most right-wing government in historyChristians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land is under attack.