The spiritual leaders of the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Custos of the Holy Land sent a letter to President Isaac Herzog on Monday expressing their “disagreement with the number of unacceptable restrictions offered on Easter celebrations,” Armenian media reported.
The letter came only days after the churches were informed by Israel Police that only 1,000 people would be allowed to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ceremony this year, which take place on April 23. Moreover, only 500 more would be allowed to enter the Old City and reach the Patriarchate yards and the overlooking roof of the Holy Sepulchre Church.
During the ceremony, participants witness a flame that appears to emerge above his tomb. The event takes place each year on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter, which this year falls on April 24.
“The church leaders responsible for the event are deeply concerned about this unjust and inexplicable decision that restricts the right of Christian pilgrims to worship freely on this crucial day of the year,” they wrote. “This sacred service of the Church, which has been achieved through the cooperation of the churches for centuries, has never given rise to security concerns.The world Christian community interprets these restrictions as unfair targeting of the Christian minority.”
The leaders said they would work to ensure the ceremony is safe and asked for the president’s support in allowing Christians to celebrate Christ’s resurrection without restriction.
“Due to the epidemic, after various, sometimes severe, restrictions, after two years of hard struggle, it is vital that all communities be allowed to worship freely and without restrictions once and for all,” they added. “We are confident in your excellency’s wise intervention.”
Excerpts from the letter were published on social media and various Christian websites. The president’s office said it could not discuss the letter. The police confirmed the restrictions.
Immediately following being informed of the gathering limits by police, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem disseminated an open letter in which it claimed that “having access to churches in the Old City, especially during Easter holidays” has become increasingly difficult in recent years, and said that “there is no justification” for the additional restrictions put into place this year.
In the letter, the Patriarchate called on worshippers to attend the service nonetheless.
“Accordingly, the orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has decided, by the power of the Lord, that it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares. It also announces that prayers will be held as usual by the Patriarchate and its priests, hoping that believers are able to participate,” the statement said.
Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar celebrated Easter on April 17.
The Holy Sepulchre church is the site where Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. Being able to hold Easter ceremonies at the church is part of the Status Quo Agreement between Israel and its Christian community.