On the eve of the Orthodox Easter, thousands of worshipers took part in the traditional "sacred fire" ceremony in Jerusalem on Saturday, a thousand-year-old rite symbolizing eternal life, under severe police restrictions.
Candle in hand, pilgrims who were able gathered fervently in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried before being resurrected, according to Christian tradition.
The basilica is located in the eastern part of Jerusalem, occupied and annexed by Israel, and the Israeli police had limited to 1.800 people, including 200 policemen, the assistance allowed inside the building.
Thousands of other Palestinian believers and foreign pilgrims gathered in the forecourt in front of the church, in the adjacent streets and even outside the walls of the Old City to receive the Easter light, a sign for Christians of the resurrection. of Christ, according to AFP journalists.
It was shortly before 15:00 p.m. (12:00 GMT) that the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III, came out of the aedicule built above the presumed place of the tomb of Jesus, with two bundles of lighted candles, triggering cries of joy, songs and cheers before the flame circulates from candle to candle in the assembly exulting after hours of waiting in the darkness of the church.
For believers, the priests who enter the tomb of Christ with the patriarch receive the flame in a miraculous way. The ceremony is the most important moment in Eastern Christianity. The flame which is then transmitted to the crowd outside the basilica is also sent by plane to the Orthodox Churches abroad.
For Laura, a tourist from Romania, the emotion is intense.
"It's like I'm dead and alive again. I feel good, I can't explain it in words. It's just a great emotion, I feel in heaven"
Georges, a retired Palestinian living in the Old City, regretted that "many Christians from the West Bank cannot come" for lack of permits issued by the Israeli authorities.
Police say the restrictions imposed are intended to ensure safety, after a stampede left several dead during a 2021 Jewish pilgrimage to Israel. But for Christians, and in particular Palestinians, they are proof of the discrimination they claim to be victims of.
On Wednesday, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate denounced the “authoritarian” and “excessive” obstacles to freedom of worship imposed according to it by Israel, and invited “all those who want to participate in the ceremony to do so”.
"All Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians, are suffering from the occupation. We must do more to end these restrictions, violations and police violence," Ahmad Tibi, Arab Member of Parliament, slammed Saturday. Israeli.
"It's a very special event for a lot of people, including for us the police. And of course we want a lot of people to be able to come. But our number one priority is human life," said his side. Dean Elsdunne, spokesman for the Israeli police, "We want to be sure that people come and celebrate in safety", he added to justify the restrictions on access to the basilica.
"I live here, so I [should] be inside this church, praying," regrets Tamar Ashariyeh, a 45-year-old Palestinian teacher, blocked a hundred meters from the Holy Sepulchre. Abed, a Palestinian merchant in the Old City, deplores the roadblocks erected by the police at the entrances and inside the Old City and accuses the Israelis of having "closed everything".
But for Maria, who also lives in the Old Town, "that's how it's always been, so we're used to it". "It's a matter of security, it's much safer that way," adds the 25-year-old, referring to the police force.
In 2022, scuffles broke out between the faithful and the police who had placed barriers in the Christian quarter of the Old City, a measure strongly denounced by the Orthodox patriarchate. Christians made up more than 18% of the population of the Holy Land when the State of Israel was created in 1948, but they are now less than 2%, mostly Orthodox.
Editorial staff with AFP