A 1930s photo from Easter week in Jerusalem, with crowds from across the region and the world gathered at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-DIG-matpc-16980] 

Blog Post

George Sahhar: Attending Easter in Jerusalem Is a Commitment to Preserve the City’s Living Mosaic

In Jerusalem, the connection between life and death is never forgotten; this city is no stranger to bitter conflict, tumultuous times, and dramatic events. The political context ultimately sets the tone for this awareness of the fragility of humankind, with its ongoing stories of mass arrests, loss of lives, and destruction of homes. Spirituality is no less intense: the ceremonies and traditions of the three monotheistic religions have for centuries established collective moods of hope. 

Between the earth and the skies, observers seek the guidance of lunar cycles and calendars to determine the dates of practice: This year, the holy month of Ramadan started on Monday, March 11, with the sighting of the new crescent moon. The Jewish Passover (Pesach) is set to take place between April 22 and April 29. As for Christians, the Latin Easter Sunday (as in most Western countries) is set on March 31; Palm Sunday falls a week earlier. The Orthodox Easter (considered the national Easter in the Palestinian occupied territories and a momentous event in Jerusalem) occurs later than usual this year: Eastern Lent starts on March 18 and culminates with Easter on May 5, and the much-anticipated Miracle of the Holy Fire, known locally as Sabt al-Nur (Saturday of Light), is set to take place on May 4, 2024. This day symbolizes the raising from the dead, the Resurrection.

A young man in a crowd lifts a cross during an Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, April 4, 2023.

A young man lifts a cross during an Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

The faithful pass lit torches received from the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.

The faithful pass lit torches received from the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

For centuries, local Christian communities of Jerusalem (including Arab, Assyrian, Greek, Armenian, Cypriot, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Russian) have stood witness to an enthralling ceremony. Christians wait in anticipation for the Holy Fire to come out of Jesus’s tomb and listen to the church bells ring across the Old City while a lit torch passes from person to person; from city to city; and thence from country to country—including Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Lebanon—the latter being especially riveting, since the Holy Fire is sent across the border with a special driver, in a ritual that has been observed for more than a millennium. Regardless of people’s religious convictions, this day carries significance: it is no surprise that Easter in Jerusalem falls close to Nowruz—the Iranian/Persian New Year, which is based on the spring equinox, and which today is largely a secular holiday enjoyed by people of different faiths, including Baha’is and some Muslim and Jewish communities.

Greek Orthodox clergy leading the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023

Greek Orthodox clergy leading the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

A crowd of Christian Jerusalemites in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre courtyard; their arms are raised in supplication, April 4, 2023.

Christian Jerusalemites from the Old City’s Christian Quarter gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre courtyard exuberantly after the Holy Fire ceremony in the church, April 4, 2023.


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Orthodox Christian faithful carry torches to mark Saturday of Light during Easter week in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 4, 2023.

Orthodox Christians celebrate Sabt al-Nur in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Palestinian Christians trace their ancestors to the first Christians. Today, they are astounded that in the “Holy Land,” the place all Christians read about in the Bible, they are not allowed to access their own sites of worship. This year, Israel placed restrictions that make it nearly impossible for Palestinian Christians living in other parts of the West Bank to go anywhere near Jerusalem: They were already excluded from celebrating Latin Palm Sunday (March 24).1 Christians in Gaza are obviously excluded this year because of the war; but even last year, Israel outright banned them from entering Jerusalem and participating in the Holy Fire ceremony.2

A smiling woman holds a torch during the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.

A smiling woman holds a torch during Sabt al-Nur in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

A smiling woman holds a torch during Sabt al-Nur observances in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023.

Celebrating Sabt al-Nur in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, April 4, 2023

Palestinian Christians find it infuriating that on important holy days, the processional route along the famous Via Dolorosa (in the Old City of Jerusalem) as well as all entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are blocked by armed Israeli police who deny them their right to worship in this church—unless, that is, they obtain “permits” from patriarchates, which are regarded as tickets of hierarchy. Last year, the Israeli police limited the presence of all Christians (locals as well as all other pilgrims) in the premises of the church (including the roof and all surrounding area) to 1,800 people—over 200 of whom were police officers.3 Israeli policies have made it excruciatingly challenging, if not impossible, for Christians throughout the country (let alone the region) to attend the Easter ceremonies.

The Holy Fire procession during Easter week 2022 is blocked by Israeli police, who spread out through the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israeli police come out in force in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, blocking the Sabt al-Nur procession in 2022.


Arda Aghazarian for Jerusalem Story

The Right to Unimpeded Access to Holy Sites

George Sahhar, a Jerusalem resident and communication and advocacy professional, is a leader in the community and an active member of a new committee made up of church leaders and residents that is advocating for the right to attend Easter in Jerusalem. Currently, they are working on a global statement about the importance of being present at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, particularly for the Holy Fire ceremony, which is one of the most meaningful events for Christians in Jerusalem. 

George shared reflections on Jerusalem and the spirit of Easter in an insightful conversation with Jerusalem Story at the premises of the World Council of Churches Jerusalem Liaison Office and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he is Advocacy Officer. He is also a professional simultaneous interpreter (English and Arabic) and a proficient trainer in interpersonal communication, negotiations, and conflict resolution. 

In an advocacy mission he is leading with church leaders, representatives, and community members that began months ago, the ask is simple: unimpeded access to their city’s holy sites. This is not the first time Christians have had to demand this right. This time last year, ACT Alliance (composed of more than 140 faith-based organizations) was one of many organizations that called for protecting the rights of Christians and Muslims to have unimpeded access to Jerusalem. In its statement, the Alliance said:

“Before the 1967 occupation, Christians would arrive by private cars from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.”

ACT Alliance Statement

The 2022 violence and restrictions by Israeli police drew strong reactions worldwide. The World Council of Churches, as well as the local Heads of Churches, issued solidarity statements and called for respect of the status quo and religious freedom in Jerusalem . . . The [Israeli] police had announced a weak excuse ahead of the Holy Fire Saturday celebrations, that the aim was to control the numbers for safety purposes. Throughout history, the only incident due to crowds inside the Church of the Holy Sepulture happened in 1834. Before the 1967 occupation, Christians would arrive by private cars from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Moreover, the Jordanians used to deploy a small number of security officers, and the celebrations went on peacefully and joyfully.4

To George, the issue of Jerusalem and the right to celebrate Sabt al-Nur in particular is personal. He is deeply invested in the matter: “I feel a total amalgamation between my spirit and the stones of Jerusalem,” he shared. “I am the stones—I am the churches—I am the stories. I see them as the spirit of this place, much like this place is my spirit.”5

George Sahhar at the World Council of Churches in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 21, 2024

George Sahhar outside the offices of the World Council of Churches/ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, March 21, 2024


Arda Aghazarian for Jerusalem Story

Easter in Jerusalem: A Right to Access for All

With regards to the Palestinian Christian presence in Jerusalem, George believes that the burden of the struggle “is the coin of our generation. It is the burden that was thrown on our shoulders—not by choice. It is the pain and the suffering we have seen, which we endure, and that we should not pass on to the next generation.”

“I feel a total amalgamation between my spirit and the stones of Jerusalem.”

George Sahhar

On Sabt al-Nur and Easter celebrations, George recalled how there had been a time (prior to the Israeli takeover) when access to the church was taken for granted: “We used to walk . . .  We would have a simple nice walk to the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and celebrate.”

“I mean, what’s the big deal?” It is a straightforward question. “Jerusalem used to be much more cosmopolitan than it is today—and this is a great loss culturally. There were so many Greeks, Armenians . . . people from all over the world were in Jerusalem—it’s all gone. It’s a different Jerusalem.”

When asked how Jerusalem is today, George paused for a moment and then, with a sad smile on his face, he answered:

Blog Post Holy Fire Ceremony Marred by Police Restrictions, Brutality

For the third year in a row, Israeli authorities enforced strict restrictions on participation in the Holy Saturday celebrations.

Jerusalem is a beautiful woman abused by a compulsive marriage. She’s a beautiful woman, but she’s with someone who beats her up. It almost brings me to tears to think about it. I don’t accept it. I really don’t. I feel like I have to do something about it.

And this takes us to the spirit of Easter: Easter is precisely about the victory of life: It is about coming back from the dead. Al-Masih qam! [“Christ has risen!” a sentiment widely repeated on Sabt al-Nur]. This [spirit] is why I believe that we do have a future, contrary to what many people think.

Sabt al-Nur (Holy Fire ceremony) in Jerusalem, May 1, 2021


Arda Aghazarian for Jerusalem Story

A Life Shaped by Coincidence

A true Jerusalemite who grew up in the Wadi al-Joz neighborhood, George graduated from the Collège des Frères high school. He then pursued his education abroad, with a BA and an MA in speech communication and a BSc in political science from universities in Iowa.

A view of the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz in occupied East Jerusalem, June 3, 2020


Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

His educational experiences in the US massively broadened his horizons at an early age. Although he immensely enjoyed his life in the States and was on a successful career path, the time came when he had to choose between his love for the US and his love for Jerusalem. He chose his first love.

Life in Jerusalem is by no means easy: George admitted that it was a shock to come back to Jerusalem in the early 1990s at the age of 26 after having enjoyed opportunities and successes in the US. Now 59, he remains in Jerusalem, despite the persistent experience of violence, fear, humiliation, and overall frustration. “It becomes exhausting,” he acknowledged, and mentioned in passing how he almost got killed on several occasions, most vividly in 2010 when he was simply driving his car and Israeli settlers violently and abruptly set out to attack him. The Israeli army saw the incident, noticed his car’s [Israeli] yellow plate license, and intervened. Had he been driving a car with a Palestinian license plate, he is certain he wouldn’t have survived.

“We survive life here in Jerusalem by coincidence,” he asserted, echoing lines from verses written by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “When violence (and death) are the norm, our survival (our presence and continuance in this land) becomes a matter of coincidence.”

“Jerusalem is a beautiful woman abused by a compulsive marriage.”

George Sahhar

A Life of Service: Hope above Despair

Life has been more challenging in Jerusalem than it is elsewhere, but his career turned out to be quite rewarding. Upon his return to Palestine in 1992, he was appointed as the head of international relations at the Palestinian Ministry of Education and was part of the first group of Palestinians to start the preparation phase for the transfer of powers and responsibilities of education and health following the Declaration of Principles of 1994.

From 1997 until 2005, he served as Bethlehem University’s development officer, where he led public relations with donors. He then took on a series of impressive projects and managed multisectoral work in communication, advocacy, and reporting in several international organizations. The programs he led were celebrated at a global level and were valued for their important contribution, particularly for women and youth.

In his current work at the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, as well as in his work training young men and women in interpretation and communication skills, he is grateful that his personal and professional values are very much aligned. His life in Jerusalem has been one of service. Being a father of three daughters (abu al-banat) has also activated his passion for youth and women’s rights.

“Inter”-generation of Hope

Considering his upbringing, perhaps it is no surprise that George would take on a life of service: his own parents, Alice and Basil Sahhar, had a huge impact on hundreds of lives in their communities. 

While raising six children (including George) in the Wadi al-Joz neighborhood of Jerusalem, Alice and Basil took it upon themselves to do charity and humanitarian work. In 1972, they rented an old run-down building in al-‘Izariyya (Bethany) and took in 10 orphan boys, an initiative that turned into Jil al-Amal (Generation of Hope) Home for Needy Boys, an orphanage and primary school where hundreds of students got educated. “They saved lives,” George mentions of his parents. 

Today, the institution survives and cares for about 75 boys aged 4 to 18 with 250 day students from the surrounding area in the primary school. George currently serves as a committee member at Jil al-Amal and pays tribute to his parents’ roles and contributions in society. His father (a school principal) came from an affluent family that owned landmark properties in Lower Baq‘a (now West Jerusalem—see The West Side Story). This included the Regent Hotel (now Lev Smadar), which was a hotel as well as a cinema. Like so many Palestinian families, the Sahhars lost their properties and were forcibly displaced from their home in 1948 and never allowed by the state to return or claim their properties. 

George’s mother, Alice, was originally from Fuheis, Jordan, but was born in Jaffa because her father—a commander in the Jordanian army—had relocated to al-Ajami to serve as Customs Officer at the seaport in Jaffa. At the age of 12, she would stand witness to one moment that would change the entire trajectory of her life: “This particular moment lived in her eyes all her life, until the very last minute,” George recounted:

As a little girl, she stood in Jaffa [in 1948], and she saw the boats of [Palestinian] refugees fleeing to nowhere, and she cried. She was 12 . . . “Ana shuftum! Ana shuftum [I saw them!]” she exclaimed even decades after when recalling the horrid injustice that had befallen the displaced Palestinians.

It was this moment and this sight that triggered in Alice a strong affinity with the oppressed. “This one vision encapsulated my mother’s life mission, to the extent that she dedicated her entire life to helping people who were suffering injustice . . . She picked children from the streets and insisted that they must be sheltered and educated.” Many of them went on to pursue their doctoral degrees. 

George appreciates the generation that preceded him for the mentorship he received from larger-than-life personalities, such as Birzeit University’s Gabi Baramki and Albert Aghazarian; then minister of education Na‘im Abul Hummus; educator Khalil Mahshi; and even the late president Yasser Arafat, who had encouraged him a lot. “They were so far ahead of me, yet they were not selfish—they helped me. They shared their knowledge and gave us positive energy.” 

A Meaningful Life

Positive energy is crucial for living under occupation. Although George sees much pessimism among the younger generation, particularly in Jerusalem, he also realizes that things are unpredictable. “Don’t underestimate our community, and never underestimate the youth. They can surprise you.” He compared Jerusalemites to the Phoenician bird: “They are inherent survivors. And they always have an element of surprise in their back pocket.” 

He recalled the local expression (and bit of an inside joke) among Palestinian Jerusalemites, which gained prevalence after the Israeli military attacks on Damascus Gate in 2021: “Al-jakar al-Maqdisi.” This refers to unabashed teasing—the childlike, in-your-face acts of defiance in the face of oppressive systems of dominance and control. An example of this was his April 2021 posting of a photo of himself sitting on the steps of Bab al-Amud and smiling into the camera; he posted this photo with the caption “Apparently we’re not allowed to sit here?” It was his response to an Israeli rule prohibiting Palestinian residents of the city from sitting in front of Damascus Gate, a historically significant community touchstone for centuries.

George Sahhar responds to an Israeli order prohibiting Palestinians from sitting on the steps facing Damascus Gate by posting this photo of himself with the caption “Apparently we’re not allowed to sit here?”

George Sahhar posted this photo of himself sitting at the steps across Bab al-Amud on April 26, 2021, with the caption “Apparently we’re not allowed to sit here?” 


George Sahhar

The stories George shares—of getting “almost shot” at military checkpoints on his way to work, of starting a ministry of education from scratch—demonstrate tenacity and perseverance in the face of oppression.

“Jerusalem Is a Mosaic That Accepts Everyone”

For many, things have not changed for the better (or may even have gotten worse). Yet George seems to be betting on faith. He has gathered enough evidence throughout his life to recognize that oppressive conditions do not last. He has taken part in various global humanitarian projects over the years and gotten introduced to different struggles that showed him how systems of power collapse. He is convinced that the power of love ultimately prevails over the love of power. 

And this is the meaning of Easter and the teaching of the Bible: “Blessed are the oppressed, for they shall inherit the earth.” In his view, Jerusalem is a hub and it is also a mosaic that accepts everyone. He called to mind the words of the poet Tamim al-Barghouti:

In Jerusalem, the rows of graves 

are the lines of the city’s history while the book is the soil 

Everyone has passed through 

For Jerusalem welcomes all visitors, whether disbelievers or believers

George’s vision for Easter, as he described it, is that “Everybody will be able to come to Jerusalem from anywhere they want and celebrate in Jerusalem . . . It is our right [as Palestinians] to be here. Had the conditions in the country been normal,” he admitted, “I might have opted to stay at home. But in Jerusalem, we cannot skip Sabt al-Nur. I feel like we must all be there.”

One’s sense of imagination has been intentionally restricted by the occupation policies, he observed. It is not acceptable that Palestinians in other parts of the West Bank should have to apply for a permit that, if granted, would allow them to spend a begrudging couple of hours to pray in Jerusalem after going through exhausting military checkpoints. It wasn’t all that long ago when pilgrims in Beirut would hop on a bus to Haifa and then head south to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. 

“Colonialism divided us,” he added. “Before 1967, people drove here from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. I’d love to see cars with Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian license plates all across Bab al-Amud for Easter celebrations . . . parked from the Musrara neighborhood to Nablus Road. Why not?”

“In Jerusalem, we cannot skip Sabt al-Nur. I feel like we must all be there.”

George Sahhar



Israel Bans Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem on Palm Sunday,” Middle East Monitor, March 25. 2024.


Israel Revokes Easter Travel Permits for Gaza’s Christians,” Middle East Monitor, April 12, 2023.


Jerusalem Story Team, “Holy Fire Ceremony Marred by Police Restrictions, Brutality,” Jerusalem Story, April 16, 2023.


George Sahhar, interview by the author, March 21, 2024. All subsequent quotes from Sahhar are from this interview.


Tamim al-Barghouti, “In Jerusalem,” trans. Houssem Ben Lazreg, Transference 5, no. 1 (2017): 61–65.

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