Church criticises Israel’s ‘heavy-handed restrictions’ on Easter
Palestinian Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under increasing attack.
The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday slammed what it called Israel’s “heavy-handed restrictions” on freedom of worship as it prepares to celebrate Easter in occupied East Jerusalem.
Israeli police said the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s “Holy Fire” celebration at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the 12th-century holy site where Jesus is believed by Christians to have been crucified, buried and resurrected.
Israeli authorities claim the measures are related to recent violence in the Old City, touched off by Israeli police raids on Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, the compound that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and its attacks on Muslim worshippers.
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But many Christian leaders, who say there is no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries, believe this is part of an ongoing Israeli policy to push them out of their homeland.
Every year, Israeli police have limited the number of pilgrims who can attend Christian celebrations, including the “Holy Fire” ceremony, irrespective of the security situation.
“They’ve locked down the Christian and Armenian quarters on the actual day [of the ceremony – Saturday] and pretty much let no one else into the city except for those issued tickets by the police for the Holy Fire,” said Donald Binder, chaplain to the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem.
“[Christianity] is the biggest religion in the world and yet Christians are being kept out of their quarter of the holy city on the holiest day of the year for them,” he told Al Jazeera.
Last month, in a joint Easter message, churches in Jerusalem denounced the fact that “over the past year, some of our churches, funeral processions and places of public gathering have become targets of attack,” with some ceremonies “closed off to thousands of worshipers”.
Israeli police attacked mourners during the funeral procession of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian who was shot dead by Israeli forces in Jenin in the West Bank almost a year ago.
With the breakdown of talks between Christian leaders and Israeli security forces, Father Mattheos Siopis from the Greek Orthodox Church urged “all who wish to worship with us to attend”.
“With that made clear, we leave the authorities to act as they will. The churches will freely worship and do so in peace,” he said.
Church officials told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that negotiations with the police over restrictions had failed.
“After many attempts made in goodwill, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions,” Siopis said.
“These heavy-handed restrictions will limit access to … the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony,” he told journalists.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – marking the most important event in the Orthodox calendar.
The Greek patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of Jesus’s tomb, and emerges with two lit candles. He passes the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica.
Worshippers clutching candles fill the church, with many more gathering in the surrounding alleys of the Old City, before the flame is flown to Orthodox communities internationally.
“The ceremony has been faithfully taking place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for nearly 2,000 years,” said Siopis.
The sacred site lies in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and the country’s police force has for the second consecutive year told church leaders that access must be considerably restricted.
Limiting church attendance to 1,800 people, including clergy from the various Orthodox denominations, is a necessary safety precaution, Israeli police said on Wednesday.
“We are going to regulate the movement of crowds,” said Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal of the Jerusalem District Police, adding that the ceremony will be available to view throughout the city on video screens.
Since the rise this year of Israel’s most far-right government in history, Palestinian Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under increasing attack.
In March, two Israeli men assaulted a priest in a church at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.
In February, a statue of Jesus was vandalised by an American Jewish tourist at the Church of the Condemnation, where Christians believe Jesus was flogged and sentenced to death.
A month earlier, dozens of Christian graves were desecrated by two Jewish Israeli teens at the Anglican cemetery on Mount Zion, where Christians believe Jesus’s Last Supper took place.
In November, two soldiers from the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade were detained for spitting at the Armenian archbishop and other pilgrims during a procession in the Old City.