JERUSALEM – Thousands of people gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday for the lighting of the "holy fire," an annual ritual marking the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.
The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem battled his way through crowds shortly after midday to enter the church's small chapel, where what is believed to be Jesus' tomb is located. Minutes later, the pilgrims inside the small basilica cheered as he emerged carrying two lit bundles of 33 candles each symbolizing the age of Jesus at the time of his death.
Many of those gathered carried similar bundles and sought to have them lighted by the patriach's flames. Within seconds, the basilica was aglow from the candles as the church bells were sounding.
The fire is taken to churches in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and elsewhere to be used in Easter Sunday services.
This year, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches celebrate Easter at the same time. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world have gathered in Jerusalem.
Israeli police closed several roads leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and set up barricades at the gates to the Old City as thousands of Palestinian and international pilgrims wanted to reach the church to watch the ceremony of the holy fire. Scuffles were reported in some places as crowds tried to battle their way through police lines to reach the church.
Robert Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, joined the Easter procession along with other diplomats and criticized the Israeli police actions in Jerusalem and closure of roads leading to the Church of Holy Sepulcher.
"The procession was stopped on the fourth security checkpoint prior to the entry on the church grounds," he said in a statement. "Despite earlier assurances to the Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem of unhindered access to the Holy Sepulcher Church on the occasion of Easter celebrations, the Israeli police refused to allow such entry claiming they had orders to that effect. A precarious standoff ensued ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through."
He called on all parties "to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshipers of all faiths and refraining from provocations not least during the religious holidays."
The Holy Week ends on Sunday with the special Easter service in churches in Jerusalem and all over the world.
[Corrected April 19, 5:28 p.m. PDT: A previous version of this post said lighting the "holy fire" marks the Christian belief that Jesus was resurrected a day after his crucifixion. Most Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected on the Sunday following his Friday crucifixion.]