Celebrations and restrictions: marking Holy Fire Saturday in Jerusalem (by EA Sandra)

On April 11, the EA team in Jerusalem monitored access for local Christians and foreign pilgrims to the important Orthodox Christian Easter ceremony of the “Holy Fire.”

On that day, thousands of Christian pilgrims filled Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony, which takes place on the eve of Orthodox Easter.

The local news service Ma’an News Agency reported the following:

“The ceremony, celebrated by Palestinian Christians across the Holy Land, takes place each year on “Holy Saturday,” or “Saturday of Light” in Arabic, marking the day following Good Friday, when Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem, and the day before Easter, which marks his resurrection from the grave.

“Palestinian Christians as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians from around the world believe that on the Saturday between these two holidays, a divine fire from heaven appears above his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

 “Believers hold that this fire ignites candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch, in an annual rite dating back to the 4th century that symbolizes the resurrection of Christ.

 “Every year, thousands gather in Jerusalem’s Old City to welcome the fire, which is subsequently brought to churches in Palestinian towns and villages throughout the Holy Land.

 “This year both Palestinian Christians as well as large numbers of East European pilgrims swiftly passed the light on from candle to candle as it emerged from the church.

“The flame is also flown out to Greece and other Orthodox countries.

 “The Holy Sepulchre church itself is built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, and the event is the highlight of the Eastern Christian calendar.”

One of the tasks for the EA team was to monitor access to the area where the Greek Patriarch carries the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the rooftop where many, many people stand and hope to light their candles from the Holy Fire.

The picture below shows the flame arriving on the rooftop. A local Christian told us it was a great honour to be the first on the roof to light your candle from the flame.

Credit: EAPPI/S. Horne

Credit: EAPPI/A. Smith

He also regretted that access to so much of the roof had been restricted.  He did not know why, but remembered days when the roof was full of Christians participating in this crucial rite. The international community considers that this church is located in occupied territory and therefore the rules for the conduct of the occupying forces apply (Article 58 of the 4th Geneva Conventions). Responsibilities for both the upholding of law and order and the maintenance of normal life, including to access to worship, lie with the Israeli authorities. For such a major event in Jerusalem, crowd control measures would be expected but we noted that there was both an absence of large numbers of people and also restricted access to much of the roof.

As we had made our way to the roof, after many waits at police barriers, a policeman told us that people had arrived to wait to enter the church for the service itself from 3am. The flame was passed to the roof at 2pm.

Local people were determined to involve us. A group of women seized my camera, in a friendly fashion, and thrust candles into my hand.

Credit: EAPPI/S. Horne

Credit: EAPPI/S. Horne

After the fire was passed around the roof it was taken out to the city to the waiting crowds.

Credit: EAPPI/J. Fisher

Credit: EAPPI/J. Fisher

By this time it was pouring with rain, but the flame was passed on and on.

Credit: EAPPI/J. Fisher

Credit: EAPPI/J. Fisher

If you would like to see what this amazing event looks like, the Huffington Post has some great video footage on their website.