More Police than Pilgrims: Holy Fire Ceremony Sees Restrictions and Violence

April 15 was Holy Saturday in the Orthodox calendar, one day before Orthodox Pascha (Easter). 


In Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, this day is marked by the annual Miracle of Holy Fire ritual in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Throngs of worshipers bearing unlit candlesticks crowd around Jesus’s tomb, a mausoleum-like structure in the Sepulcher’s rotunda. For believers, on this day every year since it was first practiced by the early Byzantine church, the same miracle occurs.


On this Saturday, a priest in ornamental vestments entered the mausoleum carrying a bundle of honey-wax candles. Out of sight from the crowd, a supernatural column of fire burst forth from the stone upon which Jesus was laid after his crucifixion. With this, still hidden from the crowd, the priest lit a candle. Anticipation was thick in the air, as the excited crowd waited for him to step back out of the mausoleum with the holy flame. 


The priest reemerged to a thunderous roar. As he passed the flame from his candle to the candles of worshipers around him–who then passed the flame to other worshipers–the dimly lit Byzantine basilica gradually filled with light. 


After the ceremony, clergy took special lamps bearing the holy flame to their home churches, and spread it among their congregations in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and beyond–Greece, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and other centers of Orthodox Christianity. In the hearts of parishioners, this miracle is more than a metaphor of Jesus’ resurrection. The flame is a true embodiment of his spirit, illuminating the world. 


The ritual was the same on Holy Saturday this year, but the crowd was smaller than in the past, with only a fraction of parishioners present in the church, compared to attendance before Covid-19. The Israeli military has increasingly denied permits to Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank seeking to reach Jerusalem for the ritual, citing public safety risks due to the expected crowds. In 2023, only 2,000 worshippers were granted entry, compared to the 10,000 who attended before the pandemic. 


Beyond the holiday, recent times have been particularly harrowing for this community. The presence of Christians living in Israel and Palestine is dwindling, and there has been a sharp rise in attacks against Christian sites and clergy on a individual level, as well as attempts to encroach upon church land by state agencies


In a press release leading up to the weekend, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch decried Israeli police’s restrictions as “heavy-handed” and claimed the military’s concerns were disingenuous. According to Bassin Khury, a 62-year-old Jerusalemite and Christian Palestinian who took part in the miracle, the ceremony started late because Israeli security attempted to bar some of the worshippers from entering; the clergy refused to start until security officials stood down. Soldiers strapped with assault rifles were seen among the crowds of Christians, meandering the streets of the Old City, and in some cases, harassing pilgrims. Twitter users circulated videos of occupation forces brutalizing civilians, just 10 days after the military besieged Al-Aqsa and beat Muslim worshipers engaged in nightly prayers.


“There were more police than pilgrims,” Khury said, who has participated in the miracle since he was a child. “We go as if not to celebrate, but to a battleground.” 


As Khury recounted his experience of the ceremony, the delighted laughter of his grandchildren rang through his home while they painted eggs the evening before Easter. Growing up, he said, the Holy Fire was something his entire family–kids and all–would have experienced. In his adulthood, he fears for the safety of his children. 


“In the beginning, there were no soldiers… but now many parents refuse to bring their children because they don’t want them to be traumatized,” he said. But when they are old enough it will be time for his grandchildren to “assume responsibility” and attend, proving their devotion in the face of potential danger. His own adult children were detained last year after they tried to intervene in the assault of an elderly woman. 


Even as the army’s grip has tightened over the course of his life, the ceremony’s jubilation never ceases to move him. “Every time, it feels like seeing something special,” he reflected. He added that for many Christian Palestinians, the flame itself is a reminder of their ongoing commitment to defending their legacy as the world’s first church.


“In a way, it is God telling us that no matter how difficult it is, the miracle is still happening,” he said. 


For those whose movement is restricted by the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, receiving the flame bears profound meaning, as it literally transcends the checkpoints, soldiers, and separation walls that comprise Israel’s military apparatus. In Bethlehem, many Christians welcome the Holy Fire at the Church of the Nativity, built around the grotto where Christ was born. 


“It is a victorious act,” said Saleem Anfous, a Bible scholar and historian who lives in Bethlehem. He describes the glory with which Christians in the West Bank celebrate the flame: drumming, chanting, people stacked on each other’s shoulders calling out to their priests with lamps in hand. Once individual worshipers take their personal flame, they display the lit candle in a window of their homes, and try to keep the same flame burning for as long as possible. He described an Orthodox Christian reverence for an everlasting and miraculous fire that bears a striking resemblance to the Zoroastrian eternal fire in Yazd, Iran, and the Jewish story of Hanukkah. 


Yet the festivities are just a momentary respite from the subjugation these groups experience from the Israeli government, which inevitably affects how people observe their faith. For Anfous, there are those who “isolate themselves in the church,” focus on being a good Christian, and remain unaffiliated with politics. Then there are those–especially young people–who disengage from the church, frustrated by what they see as its avoidance of the political struggle. The third category are Christians like Anfous, who ties his resistance to repression to his faith, following in the footsteps of Christianity’s radical foundations. 


This year, for example, he decided not to even attempt applying for a permit to enter Jerusalem, citing the threat of violence. He is not alone. Dalia Qumsieh, a lawyer, is among the many Palestinian Christians who have never celebrated in the Holy Sepulcher, despite living just a 15-minute drive away. If it were safe, many more Palestinians would be willing to make the journey, she said, but she characterized enduring “humiliating” checkpoints into Jerusalem as a “moral compromise.” 


“The word permit,” she explains, “means that I need permission from the occupation to go to my own city, to celebrate in my own church and holy sites.” 


Qumsieh, who founded The Society of St. Yves, a human rights organization focused on Palestinian Christian issues, said that this year’s restrictions were serious but hardly new. She framed them as part of a larger historical trend in which the occupation bars Christians from accessing their holy sites. 


She told of the story of the Cremisan Valley, located between Jerusalem and Beit Jala in the West Bank. This area is home to a monastery and convent school, built in 1885 on the ruins of a Byzantine structure. When the Israeli military began construction on the separation wall in 2006 just after the Second Intifada, church members organized large protests, including open-air mass, because the proposed barricade would cut the monastery off from the convent. It was eventually rerouted by court order, but the erection of the separation wall at all was a devastating blow to Palestinians, whose mobility was further restricted upon its completion in 2015. Today the 30-foot concrete fence stands ominously over the terraced hills ripe with olives and illegal Jewish-only settlements that are expanding on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. 


Qumsieh said that carrying on traditions like the Holy Fire ceremony in the Holy Land is special, especially with a small and dwindling community ;Christians make up less than one percent of Palestinians living in historic Palestine today. But she also understands the decision of the many Christians who choose to leave due to the conditions imposed by Israel’s occupation. 


“Faith is not enough to keep Palestinian Christians in their homeland,” she said.