A United Nations envoy has accused Israel of trying to block him and other diplomats from a pre-Easter “Holy Fire” ritual in the packed Jerusalem church Christians revere as the burial site of Jesus.
The incident on Saturday, following two days of violence at a separate flashpoint holy site for Jews and Muslims, highlighted rising tensions in the city ahead of Pope Francis’s Holy Land visit next month.
Israel dismissed the UN official’s complaint, calling it an attempt to inflate a “micro-incident” and noting there was no reported violence among the tens of thousands of Christians who thronged to the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem’s old walled city.
Robert Serry, the UN’s peace envoy to the Middle East, said in a statement that Israeli security officers had stopped a group of Palestinian worshippers and diplomats in a procession near the church, “claiming they had orders to that effect”.
Serry added in separate remarks to Reuters news agency he had waited with Italian, Norwegian and Dutch diplomats for up to a half hour crushed by a crowd against a barricade, while Israeli officers ignored his appeals to speak with a superior.
“It became really dangerous because there was a big crowd and I was pushed against a metal fence the police put up there, the crowd tried to push really hard,” Serry said, adding they might have been trampled had police not finally let them pass.
“I don’t understand why this happened,” he added. “I’m not saying I felt my life was in imminent danger, but this wasn’t something you associate with a peaceful procession for Easter.”
Charging “unacceptable behaviour from the Israeli security authorities,” Serry demanded in his statement that all parties “respect the right of religious freedom”.
‘Problem of judgment’
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman denied Serry’s charges and accused him of displaying “a serious problem of judgment” a there was no reported violence during the prayers and a customary torch-lit “Holy Fire” ritual held at the church.
Spokesman Yigal Palmor acknowledged though that police took steps to limit the crowd packed into the church and narrow streets outside it. “If there was any pushing and shoving I would say it was a micro-incident,” Palmor said.
Israeli police did not immediately comment on the incident, which came as they grappled with tensions elsewhere in the old city where Jews celebrated a week-long Passover festival at the same time as Christians prepared for Easter.
Terry Balata, a Palestinian witness, told Reuters that she heard the Israeli officer tell Serry, who was with about 30 other diplomats and worshippers, “so what?” when he identified himself as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s envoy to the region.
Earlier this week, police confronted Muslim protesters throwing stones near the al-Aqsa Mosque as Jews visited the surrounding area, which Judaism reveres as the place where biblical temples once stood.
Pope Francis plans to visit Jerusalem and holy sites in the occupied West Bank such as Bethlehem when he makes his first Holy Land sojourn as pontiff late in May.
“Holy Fire” is a traditional Orthodox Christian ceremony at which they say a miraculous fire appears at the site identified as Jesus’s tomb every year on the day before Easter.