Mays Shkerat for Jerusalem Story

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The Holy Light: From Jerusalem to the World

Every year on Orthodox Easter, a day after Good Friday and a day before Easter Sunday, local and pilgrim Christians gather in the thousands within and around the Orthodox Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem for a deeply meaningful traditional ceremony that celebrates Jesus’s resurrection, connecting it with Orthodox Christians worldwide.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be built on the site where Jesus was crucified, died, and rose again from the dead, is one of the holiest and most ancient Christian sites in the world.

One ceremony that has continued since the fourth century is the Miracle of the Holy Fire. It takes place every year on the Saturday preceding the Orthodox Easter (which is timed on its own calendar, different from the Catholic and Protestant Easter). On this day, known in English as Holy Saturday and locally as Sabt al-Nur (Saturday of the light), Palestinian Christians of the Old City of Jerusalem wait in anticipation to partake in the spectacle of the centuries-old ceremony known as Fayd al-Nur (the Thrust of Light).

One ceremony that has continued since the fourth century is the Miracle of the Holy Fire.

The events that follow on Holy Saturday in Jerusalem are very special for Jerusalemites and believers worldwide. Considered to be a divine miracle by many, according to Orthodox tradition, within the tomb, a blue light arises from the stone where it is believed that the body of Jesus was placed after crucifixion that gives rise to a column of Holy Fire from which two candles can be lit by the patriarch. The patriarch walks out of the tomb with two paschal candles burning bright, whereupon the crowds of thousands of local Christians and pilgrims waiting in the church let out shouts of joy (see Photo Story, below). The fire is then passed from the church, to the courtyard, and then far beyond—traveling to nearby cities as well as many other countries where Orthodox Christians reside.

Although Palestinians are separated from their holy site in Jerusalem by the closure and the Separation Wall, and despite restrictions on their participation in this ceremony, the Holy Fire connects communities across borders in a moment of transcendence, euphoria, and unity.

The site of the Church of Holy Sepulture is one of the most venerated sites in Christendom, while the miracle of the Holy Fire is the only one in human history that has taken place each year on the same day for more than 1,500 years. This is why for Palestinian Christians, especially those in Jerusalem, the Holy Fire is also a celebration of their long-lasting traditions and deeply rooted religious and cultural heritage.

High Anticipation Is Punctured by Unprecedented Police-Imposed Restrictions on Attendance

This year was the first time in three years that a return to normalcy for this ceremony was eagerly anticipated. Two years ago, the church was nearly empty because of a coronavirus lockdown. Last year, travel restrictions were in place and only fully vaccinated worshippers could attend, meaning that the participation was far smaller than normal, only some hundreds.

Although up to 11,000 people attend in normal years, and restrictions have never been necessary or imposed, this year, police suddenly unilaterally, without consultation, required that participation be limited to 1,000 people inside the church and 500 outside, in church courtyards and rooftops.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate utterly rejected this limitation, issuing a statement that read, in part:

The Patriarchate believes that there is no justification for these additional unjust restrictions, and affirms its explicit, clear and complete rejection of all restrictions. The Patriarchate is fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship and with its unacceptable methods of dealing with the God given rights of Christians to practice rituals and have to access their holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Accordingly, the orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has decided, by the power of the Lord, that it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares. It also announces that prayers will be held as usual by the Patriarchate and its priests, hoping that believers are able to participate. This position of the Patriarchate stems from the basis of divine right, heritage and history.

In the wake of this strong pushback, on top of popular, legal, and international pressure, the police relented somewhat and increased the number allowed to attend. Ultimately, it upped that number to 4,000 people, including 1,800 inside the church itself—still only a small fraction of the normal attendance in earlier years. This unprecedented step left thousands who had looked forward to attending deeply disappointed.

For Palestinians, these restrictions are viewed and received in a larger context, juxtaposed against extensive Israeli restrictions on allowing Palestinian Muslims from outside Jerusalem to come to the city to pray, whether on religious holidays or throughout the entire year (see Jerusalem: A Closed City). Such restrictions have been imposed for decades. By contrast, Israel imposes no such restrictions on Jews, whether local or foreign, to worship at their holy sites in the city. The community fears that this year’s unprecedented limits portend a new and ominous chapter in the Jerusalem Story and are part of a power struggle for sovereignty and control over the holy sites more generally. 

The Jerusalem Story Team shared this Photo Story of the day’s events.

View Photo Story