A centuries-old tradition, the Holy Fire ceremony held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Saturday before Easter, represents the resurrection of Jesus and is the highlight of the liturgical calendar for the Eastern Orthodox churches around the world.
It also represents one of the more complex religious ceremonies to be held in Jerusalem, not only because of the thousands of local and international faithful wanting to converge on the church to receive the Holy Fire, which faithful believe is brought forth miraculously from the tomb of Jesus by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs and then transported to Orthodox communities abroad, but also, perilously, because the church has only one exit, which has a raised stone step.
This year the ceremony took place after two years of COVID restrictions and amid increased tensions, as thousands of people converged on the Old City celebrating both Ramadan and Passover.
In 1834 some 400 pilgrims died in a panicked stampede in the church, and Israeli authorities have expressed concern about safety issues in the church since the late 1990s. Finding a solution to the issue is complex, involving the 1852 Status Quo understanding among the churches with guardianship rights in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“The Holy Fire ceremony is an accident waiting to happen. After the Meron tragedy, everyone is much more on alert [for] danger,” said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. “We have gone into a mode [of realizing that] these mass religious ceremonies can be dangerous. There is nothing political about it. Everything in Jerusalem is interpreted as political, even when it has everything to do with crowd and safety control.”
When Israeli authorities unilaterally placed limits on the number of people who could attend this year’s ceremony, citing last year’s stampede on Mount Meron where 45 people died, church leaders rejected any restrictions on principle. In the end, after an appeal to the Supreme Court by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the number was increased, and some 4,000 people were permitted to participate, with 1,800 inside the church.
“It was an order that landed on the Churches [without any discussion],” said a member of the patriarchate media department.
He also questioned the limit placed on the number of people allowed to be in the courtyard in front of the church and the roof – which he noted are both open spaces, calling it “unnecessary.”
But more troubling was the way the police implemented the decision, turning it into a “military show,” he said. Videos posted on social media showed police shoving people, with one policeman pushing and choking a man. Witnesses also said at the end of the ceremony, on their way out, that police pushed through a procession of young scouts, frightening the children.
“It stripped away all the happiness and joy of a blessed festivity that is at the core of Christian faith,” he said. “People are coming with candles to pray, and pushing and shoving is not a way to deal with worshippers coming to pray peacefully in a ceremony fundamental to their faith.”
Sami El-Yousef, CEO of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose family is among one of 13 Greek Orthodox Jerusalem families who play an important traditional role in the ceremony, which is faithfully held following long-held and agreed-upon rituals enumerated in the 1852 Status Quo understanding, said the ceremony is a significant renewal of faith.
“This tradition goes back hundreds of years and is passed down from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, to my father, to me and now my children,” he said. “I truly believe in that annual miracle. I know some people are doubtful, but for me it is a renewal of faith and very significant. If I am in Jerusalem, I do not miss that honor to be a part of the tradition of the city where you are.”
Israel Police said the restrictions imposed during the ceremony in the church area are due only for safety reasons and to avoid any danger of overcrowding.
“The purpose of the police activity was to enable [for] the Christian public the freedom of worship and [to enable] the ceremony to be held safely and securely, and so it was,” it said in a statement. “In order to maintain public safety and security, the participants were regulated in the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the areas adjacent to it in the Old City, in accordance with the number of crowds... and in accordance with the maximum safety and occupancy rules.”
Hassan-Nahoum said relations with the Christian community are “very positive” and that the various allegations recently made were mainly from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for its own purposes to garner international attention and raise funds.
She noted that the municipality has just completed the arduous task of making the Via Dolorosa disabled accessible, refurbished the New Gate, and has been active in bringing festivals to the area of the New Gate, which brings customers to small businesses in the area.
“The Christian community is thriving in Israel, whereas it is dying out in the Palestinian Authority, and cynics who attack us should check that fact that Bethlehem has gone from 80% Christian to 12%,” she said. “To pick a random event or interpret crowd control as something else is cynical, libelous and in bad spirit.”
Much of the tension every year, when even clergy and important participants in the ceremony are pushed back and prevented from reaching the church, is caused by ignorance and a lack of sensitivity on the part of police, said Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue.
“No doubt, it is a very challenging event, but there is a need to find a balance between what the church wants to do and what police can allow,” she said. “They don’t get any proper information about who the people are and about the holiday, so they don’t have sensitivity to the religious ceremony... they just get instructions to not let people in and are very harsh. When you are open to hear the other side, you can achieve much more.”
But for the Christians the restrictions imposed on the Holy Fire ceremony this year were just the last of a series of events in the past years, including property issues and attacks against Christian property and clergy – and also the passing of the 2018 Nation-State Law, which has made the small community feel beleaguered and pushed against a wall, said Bendcowsky.
So much so that in December the patriarchs and heads of local churches issued a statement on the current threat to the presence of Christians in the Holy Land. Last week, following up on the statement, a bipartisan group of congresspeople sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing “deep concern” about an alleged rise in extremist attacks against Jerusalem’s Christian community.
“There is a feeling that two things are happening,” explained the member of the Greek Orthodox media department. “One, Israeli radicals are getting more traction on the ground with implementing their ideology of excluding anybody who doesn’t fit their criteria out of Jerusalem... And the physical and verbal attacks against priests and Christian worshippers are growing... and there is a failure on the part of the authorities to do anything about it.”
The attacks do not represent Israel or the Jewish people, and are coming from a small group of extremists, he emphasized.
According to a list kept by a consultant to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, there have been 26 incidents of harassment or vandalism in Jerusalem against Christian targets since February 7, 2012, and 28 such incidents in Israel in general since September 4, 2012.
“We are more than happy, as we always have been, to cooperate with all [that] the authorities want,” said the member of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate media department. “We deal amicably with the authorities, [but] over the last years we see a lack of interest by the authorities to stop attacks. Our concerns are those where we think something is not working in the implementation, and we can’t be quiet with that.”
In a statement the police said they take such incidents seriously and condemn “any harm to religious institutions in the area and in general.
“During the recent period, there have been isolated cases of vandalism against religious institutions. A thorough investigation has been opened... and suspects in the act have been arrested already during the police handling of the incident,” they said.
“We will continue to work to preserve the holy places and the safety and security of those who visit and worship them, to enable all worshippers to exercise their religious freedom and worship throughout the Old City and in the holy places safely and securely,” they added.
In general, Christian leaders use methods of dialogue and diplomacy to try to achieve their goals, but feelings have been growing that in order to make their voice heard, they need to make a ruckus, Bendcowsky said.
“They don’t make big riots... but they feel they need to make noise to get international attention for their laypeople,” she said.
In 2020 the Jerusalem District Court denied the final request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the sale of church property in Jerusalem’s Old City to the right-wing NGO Ateret Cohanim, which the patriarchate said was done illegally. With the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel, also former Christian property, in the hands of Ateret Cohanim, the Greek Orthodox fear of losing property – an important source of income for them – has grown, explained Bendcowsky.
Sales and leases of property by the Churches for much needed funds is highly scrutinized in the overly charged context of the Old City, and in September 2021 the PA criticized the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem for signing a long-term lease on a plot of land next to the Jewish Quarter with the Jerusalem Municipality.
A report in Al-Monitor quoted a statement from the patriarchate in turn criticizing the Wakf Islamic religious trust, saying: “The development and construction of the property will establish and reinforce possession of the property and protect it against repeated attempts of trespassing by individuals and Wakf, as well as against potential expropriation and confiscation by [Israeli] municipal or government authorities that typically apply to vacant properties.”
An announcement by the Israeli government to expand a national park on the Mount of Olives to include Christian-owned property – a plan that, after an outcry from the churches in February, was frozen by the Nature and Parks Authority – only increased Christian fears of losing control of property. With an eye toward the City of David National Park established in the village of Silwan right outside the Old City which was turned over to the right-wing Ir David Foundation (Elad), the churches feared a politicization of their property, as happened with the City of David, said Bendcowsky.
“[The foundation’s] agenda is very clear, and the churches did not know what would happen with their property,” she said.
At the same time, all the churches in Jerusalem have faithful across all the political borders and jurisdictions of the area, including in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and even into Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and must walk a very fine line of diplomacy and relations, she added.