With processions, chants and ululations, thousands of Christian Palestinians and pilgrims celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday, the first to be held since Israel imposed new restrictions on attendance.
The mysterious, millennium-old ceremony, which celebrates Jesus's resurrection, has drawn over ten thousand worshippers in previous years.
After hours of anticipation from the crowd, Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch entered the tomb where Christians believe Jesus was buried and emerged carrying a lighted candle - without the aid of matches.
Within seconds, the light spread across the darkened church that is revered by Christians as the site of Jesus's crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The bells competed with cheers from the crowd as a smoky haze filled the chapels.
Michael Toumayan, a 36-year-old Armenian Christian, was among the first to receive the light.
"It’s an honor," he said. "My father has been doing this since he was a kid and he’s passing down this tradition to me."
After two years of COVID-19 travel restrictions, Israel has recently started allowing foreign tourists back into the country and Christians had arrived from around the world.
It took "a lot of faith and determination" to make it, said Alina Lord, 48, who flew in from Romania. She woke up at 5 a.m. to attend and managed to secure a position right across the tomb's opening.
For Sophia Gorgis, 65, who fled the Syrian war to Sweden, it had been a lifelong dream to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem.
"I have no words,” she said, choking up. "As soon as we got our (Swedish) passports, we signed up for this trip."
At one stage, clashes broke out between Christian pilgrims and Israel Police officers who were deployed throughout the Old City of Jerusalem to secure the participants. The event occured when some pilgrims tried to break past the blockades by force and the police officers tried to stop them. The officers reacted violently with one video showing a policeman grabbing a pilgrim's neck.
The police did not report the incident in their official statements, but rather said that, "since early morning hours and throughout the day, the Israeli Police took actions in order to enable a proper and safe Holy fire ceremony... The police deployment was completed after comprehensive assessments , extensive staff work, a field tour, coordination meetings with church leaders and approval of plans headed by the Jerusalem District Commander."
Hundreds of policemen, border guards and volunteers were deployed and worked to regulate participants in the area.
This year, police asked that participation be limited to 1,000 people in the church and 500 on its outskirts in an effort to avoid a security or other disaster, sparking anger and frustration by church leaders. Ultimately, it upped that number to 4,000 people, including 1,800 inside the church itself.
"The limitation of the crowd during the ceremony in the area of the church area was due to safety reasons only and in order to avoid overcrowding that could endanger the safety and security of the public," the police said in a statement. "The purpose of the police activity was to enable the Christian public practice the freedom of worship and the ceremony to be held safely and securely and so it was."
Earlier in the week, the Palestinian Authority defended the Christians and their right to have as many participants as they wanted: “The State of Palestine rejects, in the strongest terms, Israel’s illegitimate decision to impose additional punitive restrictions on the entry of Christian pilgrims and worshippers to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the sacred service of Orthodox Easte,” the PA tweeted on Thursday.
The State of Palestine rejects, in the strongest terms, Israel’s illegitimate decision to impose additional punitive restrictions on the entry of Christian pilgrims and worshippers to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the sacred service of Orthodox Easter; pic.twitter.com/ly2PRfRkdp— State of Palestine - MFA (@pmofa) April 22, 2022
In a release, the PA accused Israel of “violating the status quo, upending centuries of Christian heritage and Palestinian traditions.”
Joint List MK Sami Abu Shehadeh attended the ceremony, noting in a Twitter post that he only managed to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre "after many delays and crossing dozens of police checkpoints that detained the people and harassed them."
He wrote that "under Israeli occupation only Zionist settlers freedom to celebrate their feasts in #Jerusalem. Today I accompanied our people through the barriers imposed by armed Israeli forces in the Old City, despite the oppression our resilient people celebrated #HolyFire Saturday.
"Yes to freedom of religion and worship not to occupation and racism," the MK concluded.
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee announced late Saturday night that it would host a demonstration on Tuesday in Tamra in the Galilee against Israel's handling of Ramadan prayers on the Temple Mount and Easter events at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
"We call upon all of our people - men, women, youth and children - to participate in this united mass demonstration," the organization said in a statement.
The Holy Sepulchre lies at the heart of the Old City's Christian Quarter in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and later annexed in a move that has not won international recognition.
The Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches share custody of the Holy Sepulchre with the Roman Catholics, who celebrated Easter last week.
In the past, the light set fire to people's clothes, even their hair, said Tareq Abu Gharbiyyeh, East Jerusalem's fire chief who has been fire-proofing the ceremony for the last 30 years.
"Thankfully, it was nothing serious," he said.
This year, too, the ceremony ended safely.
Ariella Mardsen contributed to this report.