The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said it will not compromise on its religious rights as Israel restricts attendance for the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a 12th century basilica built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a 12th century basilica built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. (AP)

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

Israel said about restrictions for the holy ceremony, held on Saturday, that 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.

This year major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged against a backdrop of continued Israeli military raids and crackdowns at holy sites.

Despite the violence, tens of thousands of people have flocked to the occupied East Jerusalem's Old City 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.

On Saturday, Greek Patriarch Theophilos III entered the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of the tomb, and returned with two lit candles, passing the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame will be transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights.

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'Fed up with police restrictions'

In the dense confines of occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims share their holiest sites, even small changes can cause prophetic angst. Israel applied a safety law to the Holy Fire ceremony that limits crowd size based on space and the number of exits. 

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. 

Church leaders rejected any restrictions on principle, saying they infringe on religious freedom. 

The city has already seen a week of Israeli police attacks on worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

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.

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Source: AP