JERUSALEM (AFP) — Thousands of Orthodox Christians converged on Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday to witness what they believe is the miraculous appearance of "holy fire" on the eve of Orthodox Easter.
The Old City was jammed with pilgrims from the Eastern Orthodox faiths including Greeks, Copts, Russians and Assyrians, seeking to reach the church, one of Christianity's holiest sites.No police estimates were available on the number of people crammed into the narrow streets, but Hanna Anton Signora, a Christian scholar who contacted various churches, put the figure at around 150,000. Whatever the number, it was too much for everyone to be satisfied. Some of the faithful grew angry as police tried to control the crowds, pushing and shoving to get into the church or at least the plaza outside its main door. "We cannot enter the square of the church, which is full of police instead of prayers," said Hussam Sheebi, 16, who came from the northern Israeli town of Acre. A 48-year-old doctor said she travelled from Armenia "to see the light, to pray, to be here and feel the resurrection of our Jesus." She came to witness what Orthodox Christians believe is an annual miracle -- the sudden appearance of a blue-coloured flame inside an ornately decorated marble tabernacle built over what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus. The church itself is built on the site most Christians revere as the place where Jesus was crucifixed, and also where he was buried and rose again to life, the event celebrated on Easter Day. Custody of the church is shared by the Greeks, Armenians and Roman Catholics, all of whom jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the centuries. Such are the sometime rivalries that custody of the keys to the church has been entrusted for centuries to two Palestinian Muslim families. In the past, the ceremony has erupted in brawling and fisticuffs, especially between Greeks and Armenians, and even led to stampedes and deaths. Early on Saturday afternoon, in a totally darkened church, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, entered alone the small marble structure built over Jesus's tomb, or sepulchre, inside the church. It is believed that as the patriarch prays a blue, shiny light emanates from the tomb and that he then lights two candles it.
Emerging from the tomb with the lighted candles, he is greeted with the joyful cries of the assembled throng and the ringing of the church bells.The "holy fire" is eventually passed from the patriarch's candles to those held by others and then on and on, in a spreading wave of light, to even others, both inside and outside the church.
A music teacher from Ukraine started to cry as she talked about what she holds to be the miracle of the holy fire.
"Jesus sacrificed for us, for our souls and he continues to show us his miracles," said the 33-year-old woman who gave only her first name, Albina.
Hussam's mother, Suher, says "me and my family are waiting until we are able to take the holy light with us to Acre, to keep my family blessed."
Orthodox Christians who are Palestinian and live in the nearby West Bank are generally not allowed by Israel to enter the Holy City. Many of them hold similar ceremonies at churches in their own towns and villages, such as Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ.
But special permissions are given to them to enter Jerusalem for religious celebrations, according to the army.
From Jerusalem the sacred flame is transported by a chartered flight to Athens, where it is taken by road, air and sea to light up churches all over Greece and beyond at midnight as the faithful call out "Christ is risen."
In Orthodox tradition, as well as many Western rites, the vigil held on the night before Easter begins with a darkened church that is illuminated by new fire, which symbolises the "light of Christ" manifest in the Resurrection.