Thousands of Orthodox Christians filled Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spilled out into the narrow streets on Saturday for the “Holy Fire” ceremony on the eve of Orthodox Easter.
Believers hold that the fire is miraculously sent from heaven to ignite candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch in an annual rite dating back to the 4th century that symbolises the resurrection of Jesus.
Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said around 10,000 faithful packed into the church, with thousands more outside in the streets of the surrounding Old City. She said there were about 20,000 people last year.
Some 3,000 police were deployed in the church and around it to keep the jubilation from getting out of hand. No major incidents were reported, but there was some pushing and shoving at barricades that had been set up.
As is the case every year, Israel restricted the number of Christians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, overwhelmingly Orthodox, who could attend.
Patriarch Theophilos III traditionally makes his grand entry at the head of a procession of monks, chanters, dignitaries and red and gold banners bearing icons.
After circling an ornate shrine in the heart of the church three times amid chants of “Axios” (“He is worthy”), he enters what Orthodox, Roman Catholics and many other Christians believe is Jesus’s burial site, emerging minutes later with several lit candles.
The patriarch is always searched beforehand to ensure that he is carrying nothing, such as matches or a lighter, that could be used to light the candles.
As joyous people press in on him, the patriarch passes on the flames to their outstretched candles. The fire makes its way through the crowd, casting a flickering orange glow on the grey walls and towering stone columns, and filling the air with smoke.
Pilgrims claim the Holy Fire does not burn their hair, faces, clothes or anything else during the first 33 minutes of its appearance, and one web site (http://www.holyfire.org) offers videos claiming to show worshippers in prolonged contact with the flames without being hurt.
The Holy Fire, which quickly makes its way outside to the crowds waiting there, is also carried to nearby Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, and also much farther afield.
It will be flown to Athens and to the capitals of other predominantly Orthodox countries to be shared.
The church, which the Orthodox call the Church of Resurrection, also encloses what is widely believed to be Calvary, the site on which Jesus was crucified.
While it is therefore one of Christianity’s holiest sites, it is shared uneasily by six denominations — the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.
Past ceremonies have been marred by violence, with fist fights breaking out among monks from the different denominations over perceived changes to a status quo hammered out over several centuries.
The date of Orthodox Easter is calculated differently than by the Roman Catholics and other churches, so the most important feast of the Christian year is frequently celebrated on different Sundays.
Most Christians celebrated Easter last week.