(photo credit: ahmad gharabli )
Thousands of Christian worshippers packed into their most revered church on Saturday, lighting row upon row of candles, pouring hot wax onto their faces and dancing in celebration of the Orthodox churches' Easter 'holy fire' ritual.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and entombed, was filled with the smoke of blazing candles seconds after Orthodox religious leaders descended into an underground chamber and emerged with a flaming torch.
Israeli police helped worshippers light candles from the flame, many of the faithful stretching their arms across barricades erected to keep the surging crowd back from the shrine marking the traditional site of Christ's crucifixion.
The "holy fire" is passed among worshippers outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is taken aboard special flights to Athens and other cities - connecting many of the 200 million Orthodox worldwide to their spiritual roots.
As worshippers in the church Saturday quickly lit their candles - many of them carrying bunches of long tapers tied up with string and decorated with pictures of Jerusalem - Arab Christian women ululated and others beat out Arabic drum rhythms. One youth bounced up and down on another's shoulders, waving a candle.
Other celebrants dropped molten wax onto their faces.
The ceremony started with the entrance of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilos III, into the church dressed in his robes and a large yellow-and-white cowl, and carrying a large staff.
During the ceremony, the patriarch descends into the church's underground tomb to bring out the flame. When he emerges, church bells peal and flames are passed around to the thousands of faithful, filling the church with light and smoke within seconds.
The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. The precise details of the flame's source are a closely guarded secret, but some believe it appears spontaneously from Christ's tomb as a message from Jesus on the eve of the Orthodox Easter that he has not forgotten his followers.
Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby estimated that tens of thousands of worshippers were in the Old City for the ceremony. He said there were no reports of disturbances, but after unrest last year, security was tight. Several thousand police officers were deployed, alleys around the church were blocked off, and police barred traffic from the area.
During last year's holy fire ritual, tempers flared as thousands of people waited to pass through security barricades into the Old City. Some priests and pilgrims shoved and punched police, and there were scuffles inside the church.
Although police could not give an exact figure, the number of Easter pilgrims in Jerusalem on Saturday was swollen this year as the calendars of five major Christian faiths coincided with one another, bringing Orthodox and western Christians to worship at the same time. This happens only once every four years.