JERUSALEM: The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday slammed Israel’s “heavy-handed restrictions” on its upcoming Easter celebrations in Jerusalem, urging Christians to attend in spite of police curbs.
In an escalating row over attendance numbers at the Holy Fire ceremony on Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - where Christians believe Jesus’s tomb lies - the church said negotiations with police had failed.
“After many attempts made in goodwill, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions,” said Father Mattheos Siopis from the Greek Orthodox Church.
“These heavy-handed restrictions will limit access to... the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony,” he told journalists.
The annual Holy Fire ceremony, during which priests bring a flame from the tomb which they believe sparks miraculously each year, marks the most important event in the Orthodox calendar.
In the past some 10,000 worshippers clutching candles would fill the church, with many more crowding into the surrounding alleys of the Old City, before the flame was flown to Orthodox communities internationally.
“The ceremony has been faithfully taking place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for nearly 2,000 years,” said Siopis.
The sacred site lies in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the country’s police force has for the second consecutive year told church leaders that access must be considerably restricted.
‘Churches will freely worship’
Limiting church attendance to 1,800 people including clergy from the various Orthodox denominations is a necessary safety precaution, police said Wednesday.
“I want to emphasise that our main concern is the safety of the pilgrimage that are coming to the Old City. The numbers were provided by the safety engineer,” who assessed the church, said Yoram Segal from the Jerusalem district police.
“We understand the feeling, the religious feelings of people that want to participate in this Holy Light ceremony. But unfortunately not everyone can enter the church because of the safety regulation,” he added.
Segal said the ceremony will be broadcast on screens in the Old City and that the force is “doing our best” to ensure the flame can travel onwards to Christian communities beyond Jerusalem.
Last year there were scuffles between worshippers and police officers who imposed barriers throughout the city’s Christian quarter.
Siopis said these measures “made impossible” the access of Christians to the church.
With the breakdown of talks between Christian leaders and Israeli security forces, the priest urged “all who wish to worship with us to attend”.
“With that made clear, we leave the authorities to act as they will. The churches will freely worship and do so in peace,” he said.