Christians concerned with Israeli restrictions for Holy Week, Easter

IMAGE: CNS photo/Oliver Weiken, EPA

By Judith Sudilovsky

restrictions on reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Holy Week and
Easter are part of the current Israeli government’s policy of making Jerusalem
an exclusively Jewish city, said Yusef Daher, secretary-general of the
Jerusalem Interchurch Center.

Describing the network of Israeli
police barriers that disrupt the flow and number of people able to reach the
church for Good Friday services and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the
Easter Vigil, Daher acknowledged that although the single entrance and exit to
the church cause a potential hazard in case of a fire, there had been no
problem in more than a century.

“This (restrictions) did
not happen 10 years ago,” he said.

The Holy Fire ceremony involves
the sharing of fire which, according to tradition, is brought forth miraculously
from the tomb of Jesus by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs. The first
flames are passed from person to person by torches to bundles of candles.
Eventually fire from the ceremony is sent to the various parishes of the Holy

The ceremony has become a point
of contention over the past 10 years between the Israeli police and local

Police say the single exit into
a plaza makes the ceremony a high risk for visitors if a fire breaks out. In
1808, a fire severely damaged the dome of the Rotunda, and dozens of pilgrims
were trampled to death, while in the mid-1800s a fire during the Holy Fire
Ceremony reportedly also killed hundreds of pilgrims.

Palestinian Christians living in
the West Bank and Gaza also need special permits in order to attend Holy Week
and Easter ceremonies. Israel grants the permits at the last minute, and then
often does not grant enough for everyone in the family to travel.

At a March 17 media briefing in
Jerusalem’s Old City, Father Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate
Seminary in Beit Jalla, West Bank, compared the restrictions to the celebration
of Holy Week, which reminds Christians that Easter is coming.

“It (reminds us) that this
can’t go on forever, there is an end; like with the Gospel there is a resurrection
of light and of happiness,” he said.

The Status Quo, the 1852 agreement
that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various
Christian holy sites, governs the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is shared
by Catholics, Armenians and Greek, Ethiopian, Syriac and Coptic Orthodox.

While the need for more exits
has been acknowledged, because of the desire to maintain the Status Quo, church
officials have been unable to reach an agreement on how do so. Israel has said
it will refrain from taking unilateral action in order to avoid provoking church

“Yes, there are some
security issues (in terms of fire exits),” Daher said. “Christians
say that on a holy day God will not allow anything dangerous to happen. Secular
people say that is nonsense and something has to be done, but closing the plaza
is not (the solution).”

There are about 8,000 Christians
living in Jerusalem, he said, and 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, with fewer
than 2,000 in Gaza.

Over the past two years the
Jewish Passover and Easter holiday have coincided and while the Jews entering
the Old City have had complete freedom of movement, the movement of Christians
celebrating Good Friday and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony have been
restricted by the barriers, Daher said.

Meanwhile, he said, as Palm
Sunday approaches, West Bank and Gaza Palestinians had not yet received their
permits, which made it difficult for West Bank parishes to plan for the
transportation to Jerusalem in order to participate in the traditional
procession into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, following the path Jesus is
thought to have taken, said Khader. He said he hoped permits would still be

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