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Orthodox Christians celebrate 'Holy Fire' ceremony in Jerusalem

Orthodox Christians hold up candles during the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 April, 2017

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Tens of thousands of Orthodox pilgrims gathered at Christianity's holiest site under heavy Israeli police guard for the traditional "Holy Fire" ceremony to mark Easter.
Tens of thousands of Orthodox pilgrims gathered at Christianity's most holy site under heavy Israeli police guard Saturday for the traditional "Holy Fire" ceremony to mark Easter.

Clutching candles, the faithful packed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, built on the site where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Thousands of pilgrims from Eastern Europe thronged the church alongside Palestinian members of the local Orthodox community.

Thousands more, unable to enter the building, waited in the square outside to receive the flame, passed from candle to candle in a symbol of eternity, peace and renewal.

The ritual has been performed for around 1,200 years and marks what believers see as a miracle. Every year, Orthodox priests emerge from an antechamber with a fire lit from the tomb of Jesus.

In the past, the flame was carried from Jerusalem all the way across the Orthodox world. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lie in East Jerusalem, occupied and later annexed by Israel following the Six Day War of 1967. Under international law, the Old City is considered occupied Palestinian territory.

The ornate shrine surrounding what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus was reopened last month at a ceremony that followed months of delicate restoration work.

Following a $3.7-million renovation led by the church's three main Christian denominations, the shrine has been painstakingly restored to its former glory -- including a warm reddish-yellow colouring.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church, but disputes between the three had led to renovations being delayed for decades.

Christians made up more than 18 percent of the population of the Holy Land when Israel was founded in 1948, but now form less than two percent, mostly Orthodox.

A day earlier, on Good Friday, Palestinian Christians and thousands of pilgrims from around the world retraced the 14 Stations of the Cross and walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus Christ is believed to be buried.

Israeli security forces deployed in high numbers across the city as Christian commemorations were under way for Good Friday and Jews marked the week-long Passover holiday.

That did not prevent a Palestinian man, described by police as "very mentally disturbed", stabbing to death a British woman on Friday in a tram passing near the walls of the Old City. 

Israel imposed a complete closure on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for the week-long holiday, barring Palestinians from entering or exiting the occupied territories.

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