Local Christians were able to celebrate Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem in greater numbers than last year thanks to continued rollbacks of COVID restrictions around the country.

Usually at this time of year, the Old City is teeming with pilgrims from Russia, Armenia, Greece, Ethiopia and other Orthodox faithful who come to Jerusalem to celebrate the resurrection and to participate in Sapt il-Noor – Saturday of Light – at the Holy Sepulchre.  

This service, also referred to as the Holy Fire ceremony, usually draws tens of thousands of Christians to the church, considered by many to be the tomb of Jesus.

Since March of last year, however, no foreigners have been allowed into the country. Last year’s Easter celebrations were scaled back to just clergy from the respective denominations. This year, with Israel opening up – and in the absence of foreigners – many locals were able to attend.

Despite the relatively smaller number of churchgoers this year, Palestinian officials said police set up checkpoints around the Old City and blocked access to Christians. Some of the encounters resulted in physical altercations, according to WAFA news agency of the Palestinian Authority.

“The presidency stressed that the checkpoints, provocation of Christian worshippers and turning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its surroundings into a military outpost will not intimidate the Palestinian people nor prevent them from preserving their authentic Palestinian identity and from exercising their religious freedom guaranteed by international laws and charters,” WAFA reported.

According to different estimates, between 400 to 2,000 worshippers were allowed into the church for the ceremony.

With fresh images of the previous day’s tragedy at Mt. Meron where 45 Jewish worshippers were killed in a stampede at an event which drew 100,000 people, Israel Police said their main goal on Saturday was to protect participants.

The Holy Sepulchre has only one entrance and exit making for potential safety hazards.

“This is a complex and challenging task. The policemen and Border Police officers are determined and motivated to carry out their mission while showing sensitivity to the needs of the many visitors and many believers who frequent the Old City area,” the police said in a statement. “The increased readiness of the police continues with an emphasis on the Old City and the continuation of planned events, in order to allow freedom of worship for all religions, the observance of routine and all this while maintaining public peace and security.”

The Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriate Affairs also accused Israel of impeding freedom of worship for Christians.

“The Kingdom condemns and rejects the Israeli police obstructing the arrival of Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to participate in the…celebrations, attacking a number of them, and placing barriers in the vicinity of the church,” the ministry said.

The Associated Press reported that entry was limited to vaccinated worshippers only and that few people wore masks.

After a successful vaccination campaign with more than 50% of the eligible population having received the injection, Israel has largely reopened its economy and relaxed most restrictions, although a requirement to wear masks indoors remains in place.

The Holy Fire ceremony has been practiced at the Holy Sepulchre for hundreds of years. On the Saturday before Easter, the Greek Orthodox patriarch and an Armenian priest remain in the tomb for the duration of the hours-long service. The Orthodox believe the light of the resurrected Christ pierces the tomb and lights a candle. That flame is then passed around by the priests inside the tomb to all the people in the church holding bundled candles, lighting up the building.

Candles ignited from this flame are driven to Bethlehem and flown to the Orthodox churches overseas including Greece.

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