Thousands of Christians have celebrated the traditional “Holy Fire” ceremony of blazing candles at the Holy Sepulchre church, Christianity’s holiest site in Jerusalem, to mark the eve of Orthodox Easter.
Saturday’s ceremony comes against a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this year that it said were needed for safety. Coronavirus constraints had severely limited attendance on the past two occasions.
This year major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged against a backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian violence. More than 150 Palestinians have been injured in the Israeli raid of Al-Aqsa compound – Islam’s third holiest site.
This year, joyous, shouting faithful crowded together unmasked, holding aloft wads of thin candles bound together to produce thick orange flames that danced inside the darkened Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The church is built on the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Israel’s foreign ministry gave a crowd estimate of thousands, who celebrated in a tense Jerusalem in the wake of Israeli soldiers attacking worshippers at Al-Aqsa compound on a near-daily basis.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lies in East Jerusalem, occupied and later annexed by Israel following the Six-Day War of 1967.
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church.
Christians made up more than 18 percent of the population of Palestine when Israel was founded in 1948, but now form less than two percent, mostly Orthodox.