Israeli restrictions on ‘Holy Fire’ ceremony ignite Christian outrage

Nuns gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem on April 15.
(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)

Christians were celebrating the “Holy Fire” ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday against a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this year that it said were needed for safety.

Israel says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy site last year left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.

In the dense confines of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims must share their holiest sites — no matter how reluctantly — even small changes can cause prophetic angst.


The city has already seen a week of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the nearby Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam. It stands on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

This year major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged against a backdrop of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. Tensions have soared as tens of thousands of people flock to Jerusalem to visit some of the holiest sites for all three faiths for the first time since the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling 12th century basilica built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Every year the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of the tomb, and returns with a lit lantern, passing the flame from candle to candle among thousands of people, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame is later transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights.

The source of the Holy Fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, and highbrow skeptics going back to the Middle Ages have scorned it as a carnival trick for the masses.

Two years ago, the church was nearly empty because of a coronavirus lockdown, but Israel made special arrangements for the flame to be carried abroad. Hundreds attended last year, when travel restrictions were in place and the ceremony was limited to the fully vaccinated.


This year, Israel says it is applying a safety law that limits crowd size based on space and the number of exits. Authorities say they want to prevent a repeat of last year’s stampede on Mount Meron in northern Israel during a religious festival attended by around 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It was one of the worst disasters in the country’s history, and authorities came in for heavy criticism over alleged negligence.

“There’s never a problem until there’s a problem, and this is what happened last year in Meron,” said Tania Berg-Rafaeli, the director of interreligious affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

If something were to happen at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “we would have to take responsibility for that, and we want to avoid any problem,” she said.

Authorities said they would allow a total of 4,000 people to attend the Holy Fire ceremony, including 1,800 inside the church itself, which has a single large entryway with a raised step. Berg-Rafaeli said Israeli authorities have been in close contact with the churches and would revise the quota upward next year if more doors in the basilica can be opened.

“It’s totally about safety and not at all about anything else,” she said.

Church leaders rejected any restrictions on principle, saying they infringe on religious freedom. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like Al Aqsa, is governed by a decades-old set of informal arrangements known as the status quo. As at Al Aqsa, seemingly minor violations have ignited violence, including notorious brawls between monks of different denominations.


In a statement released earlier this month, the Greek Patriarchate said it was “fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship.”

“The orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has decided, by the power of the Lord, that it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares,” it said. “Prayers will be held as usual.” The patriarchate says up to 11,000 people attend in normal years.

Police sealed off the main entrances to Old Jerusalem ‘s Christian Quarter with barricades. Large crowds jostled to get in as police waved through a trickle of local residents and some foreign tourists.