Thousands of Christians pilgrims from around the world filled Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday to celebrate the Orthodox Holy Light ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Attendance was limited this year due to safety concerns raised by the site's architect. Israeli police enforced the limitation, drawing the ire of some participants.
The millennium-old celebration, symbolizing Jesus's resurrection, usually draws thousands of worshippers to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried.
But Israeli police this year had significantly limited access to the event, citing safety concerns.
Only 1,800 allowed for Holy Light ceremony
In contrast to previous years, when as many as 10,000 worshippers packed into the church, only 1,800 were allowed inside this year, with another 1,200 outside. Additional checkpoints around the Old City also restricted access to the area around the church.
The churches said they would not be cooperating with the police restrictions, which they see as part of long-standing efforts to push out the local Christian community.
Some church leaders have voiced concern over what they describe as an environment of impunity in the face of rising acts of violence and vandalism targeting Christians and their properties in Jerusalem.
Israel has been on high alert in recent weeks in the Old City - a frequent flashpoint for violence - as Christians, Muslims and Jews all celebrated holidays.
Border Police on Saturday had set up barriers at access points to the church, allowing in only those with special permits. "These numbers are based on safety engineer analysis," said police spokesperson Dean Elsdunne.
As worshippers, both local and from abroad, trickled in throughout the morning hours, prayer chants competed with bell tolls and music from marching bands.
"This is our holiday and we should feel comfortable while celebrating, without barricades and violence against women, youth and children," said local resident Christina Kurt.
After hours of anticipation, the ceremony culminated when Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch emerged from the sealed empty tomb with a lighted candle, a mysterious act considered an annual Holy Saturday miracle before Orthodox Easter Sunday.
The light was then quickly dispersed among the faithful gathered in the darkened church and outside it.