August 14, 2022

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JERUSALEM — Christians celebrated their “Holy Fireplace” ceremony on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday in opposition to a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this yr that it mentioned have been wanted for security.

Israel says it needs to stop one other catastrophe after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy web site final yr left 45 individuals useless. Christian leaders say there’s no want to change a ceremony that has been held for hundreds of years.

Within the dense confines of Jerusalem’s Previous Metropolis, the place Jews, Christians and Muslims should share their holiest websites — irrespective of how reluctantly — even small modifications could cause prophetic angst.

Town has already seen every week of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police on the close by Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest web site in Islam. It stands on a hilltop that’s the holiest web site for Jews, who seek advice from it because the Temple Mount.

This yr main Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged in opposition to a backdrop of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. Tensions have soared as tens of hundreds of individuals flock to Jerusalem’s Previous Metropolis to go to a number of the holiest websites for all three faiths for the primary time because the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

Japanese Orthodox Christians consider that on the Saturday earlier than Easter a miraculous flame seems contained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling twelfth century basilica constructed on the positioning the place Christians consider Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

On Saturday, Greek Patriarch Theophilos III entered the Holy Edicule, a chamber constructed on the normal web site of the tomb, and returned with two lit candles, passing the flame amongst hundreds of individuals holding candles, progressively illuminating the partitions of the darkened basilica. The flame can be transferred to Orthodox communities in different international locations on particular flights.

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The supply of the Holy Fireplace has been a intently guarded secret for hundreds of years, and intellectual skeptics going again to the Center Ages have scorned it as a carnival trick for the plenty.

Two years in the past, the church was practically empty due to a coronavirus lockdown, however Israel made particular preparations for the flame to be carried overseas. A whole bunch attended final yr, when journey restrictions have been in place and the ceremony was restricted to the fully-vaccinated.

This yr, Israel utilized a security regulation that limits crowd dimension based mostly on area and the variety of exits. Authorities say they wish to stop a repeat of final yr’s stampede on Mount Meron in northern Israel throughout a non secular competition attended by round 100,000 principally ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It was one of many worst disasters within the nation’s historical past, and authorities got here in for heavy criticism over alleged negligence.

“There’s by no means an issue till there’s an issue, and that is what occurred final yr in Meron,” mentioned Tania Berg-Rafaeli, the director of interreligious affairs on the Israeli Overseas Ministry.

If one thing have been to occur on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “we must take accountability for that, and we wish to keep away from any drawback,” she mentioned.

Authorities mentioned they might enable a complete of 4,000 individuals to attend the Holy Fireplace ceremony, together with 1,800 contained in the church itself, which has a single massive entryway with a raised step. Berg-Rafaeli mentioned Israeli authorities have been in shut contact with the church buildings and would revise the quota upwards subsequent yr if extra doorways within the basilica will be opened.

“It’s completely about security and under no circumstances about anything,” she mentioned.

Church leaders rejected any restrictions on precept, saying they infringe on non secular freedom. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like Al-Aqsa, is ruled by a decades-old set of casual preparations referred to as the established order. As at Al-Aqsa, seemingly minor violations have ignited violence, together with infamous brawls between monks of various denominations.

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In an announcement launched earlier this month, the Greek Patriarchate mentioned it was “fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship.”

“The orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has determined, by the facility of the Lord, that it’s going to not compromise its proper to supply non secular companies in all church buildings and squares,” it mentioned. “Prayers can be held as common.” The patriarchate says as much as 11,000 individuals attend in regular years.

Police sealed off the primary entrances to the Christian Quarter with barricades. Giant crowds jostled to get in, because the police waved by way of a trickle of native residents and a few overseas vacationers.

The ceremony, which matches again at the least 1,200 years, hasn’t at all times handed peacefully.

In 1834 a frenzied stampede broke out within the darkened church, and the ruler of the Holy Land on the time barely escaped together with his life after his guards drew swords and hacked their approach by way of the gang, the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore recounts in his historical past of Jerusalem. Some 400 pilgrims died within the melee, most from suffocation or trampling.

Israel says it’s dedicated to making sure freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and has lengthy introduced itself as an island of tolerance within the Center East.

In recent times, nevertheless, tensions have risen with the native Christian group, most of whom are Palestinian Christians, a inhabitants that has steadily dwindled by way of a long time of battle as many have sought financial alternatives overseas.

Israel captured east Jerusalem — which incorporates the historic Previous Metropolis and its non secular websites — together with the West Financial institution and the Gaza Strip, within the 1967 Mideast warfare.

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The Palestinians need all three territories for a future state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem shortly after the warfare in a transfer not acknowledged internationally, and considers all the metropolis to be its unified capital.

In recent times, the Greek Patriarchate has been locked in a authorized battle with a Jewish settler group over the sale of three properties within the Previous Metropolis, together with two Palestinian-run inns. The patriarchate says it has proof of corruption within the disputed 2004 sale.

Israel’s Supreme Court docket upheld the sale in 2019, ruling in favor of Ateret Cohanim, an Israeli group that seeks to develop the Jewish presence in principally Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.

The settlers took over a part of one of many inns — a preferred backpacker hostel — final month. Christian leaders denounced the transfer, accusing them of attempting to vary the non secular character of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter.

The frustration could possibly be felt exterior the New Gate resulting in the Christian Quarter on Saturday, as crowds waited to enter. Some lifted child strollers and babies over the barricades as they have been waved by way of.

“It’s like this yearly and yearly there’s a unique excuse,” mentioned Dr. Muna Mushahwar, a doctor who argued with police as she tried to arrange the entry of a overseas delegation.

“They don’t need the Christians right here. The extra you push individuals the extra annoyed they get after which they depart.”