April 15, 2023

A First Look at the Holy Light (Holy Fire) of Jerusalem 2023

Today in Jerusalem the Holy Light, known in the West as Holy Fire, once again descended into the Tomb of Christ as Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem knelt in prayer within the Holy Sepulchre. This ceremony has taken place just about every year for hundreds of years on Holy Saturday, shortly after 2:30pm. With 33 candles in each hand he distributed the Holy Light to the many present. Following the Holy Light ceremony, the flame is taken by plane to other Orthodox communities in countries such as Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania. In Greece the Holy Light is usually received with the welcome of a Head of State.
2023 Restriction Controversy
Though in 2021 the Israeli government implemented restrictions and protocols for attending the ceremony in light of the coronovirus pandemic, in 2022 many of these restrictions and protocols were lifted, though there were still capacity limits. This year, 2023, Israel has kept the capacity limit for a second consecutive year. 
Israel has capped the ritual — normally an experience of being squeezed among multilingual, suffocating crowds — to just 1,800 people. The Israeli police say they must be strict because they're responsible for maintaining public safety. In 1834, a stampede at the event claimed hundreds of lives. Two years ago, a crush at a packed Jewish holy site in the country's north killed 45 people. Authorities say they're determined to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. 
But Jerusalem's Christian minority — mired in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and caught between Jews and Muslims — fear Israel is using the extra security measures to alter their status in the Old City, providing access to Jews while limiting the number of Christian worshippers.
Israeli authorities and church officials have publicly quarreled over the crowd constraints for the past week. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate has lambasted the restrictions as a hindrance of religious freedom and called on all worshippers to flood the church despite Israeli warnings.
As early as 8 a.m., Israeli police were already turning back most worshippers from the gates of the Old City — including foreign tourists who flew from Europe and Palestinian Christians who traveled from across the West Bank — directing them to an overflow area with a livestream.
Angry pilgrims and clergy jostled to get through while police struggled to hold them back, allowing only a trickle of ticketed visitors and local residents near the church. Metal barricades sealed off alleys leading to the Christian Quarter. Over 2,000 police officers swarmed the stone ramparts.
A few Palestinian teenagers from the neighborhood saw a chance to make a buck, promising tourists they'd get them into the church for some 200 shekels ($54) but leading them only to a nearby courtyard before asking for more money.
Ana Dumitrel, a Romanian pilgrim surrounded by police outside the Old City, said she came to pay tribute to her late mother, whose experience witnessing the holy fire in 1987 long inspired her.
“I wanted to tell my family, my children, that I was here as my mom was," she said, straining to assess whether she had a chance.
In the limestone passageways on Saturday, Christians pushed back by police were trying to cope with their disappointment. Cristina Maria, a 35-year-old who traveled from Romania to see the light kindled from the holy fire, said there was some consolation in the thought that the flame was symbolic, anyway.
“It's the light of Christ,” she said, standing between an ice cream parlor and a dumpster in the Old City. “We can see it from here, there, anywhere.”
Update:  Israeli Police Violently Beat Several Holy Fire Worshippers Trying to Defy Capacity Limits
For further reading, see: Holy Light of Jerusalem Resource Page

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