Orthodox Christians await Holy Light in Jerusalem under heavy police restrictions

Orthodox Christians await Holy Light in Jerusalem under heavy police restrictions

Thousands of Palestinian Christians and pilgrims from around the world filled Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday to celebrate the Orthodox Holy Light ceremony, under a heavy Israeli police presence that has drawn anger from churches.

The millennium-old celebration, symbolising 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 have significantly limited access to the event, citing safety concerns.

In contrast to previous years, when as many as 10,000 worshippers packed into the church, only 1,800 will be allowed inside this year, with another 1,200 outside. Additional checkpoints around the Old City will also restrict 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.

Police also faced criticism over a lack of regulation at a crowded Jewish pilgrimage site in northern Israel after a stampede there in 2021 killed 45 people.

Barriers set up

Israel’s border police on Saturday 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.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, which includes the walled Old City and its holy sites, after a 1967 Middle East War in a move not recognised internationally. It sees Jerusalem as its eternal and undivided capital.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The Holy Sepulchre lies at the heart of the Old City’s Christian Quarter in East Jerusalem.

After hours of anticipation, the ceremony culminates when Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch emerges from the sealed empty tomb with a lighted candle, a mysterious act considered an annual Holy Saturday miracle before Orthodox Easter Sunday.

The light is then quickly dispersed among the faithful gathered in the darkened church and outside it.


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