Orthodox Christians celebrate 'holy fire' in Jerusalem
MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)
Tens of thousands of Orthodox pilgrims gathered at Christianity's holiest site in Jerusalem under heavy police guard Saturday for the traditional "holy fire" ceremony to mark Easter.
Clutching candles, the faithful packed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, built on the site where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Thousands of pilgrims from Eastern Europe thronged the church alongside Arab members of the local Orthodox community.
Thousands more, unable to enter the building, waited in the square outside to receive the flame, passed from candle to candle in a symbol of eternity, peace and renewal.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lies in east Jerusalem. The ornate shrine surrounding what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus was reopened last month at a ceremony that followed months of delicate restoration work.
Following a $3.7-million (3.4-million-euro) renovation led by the church's three main Christian denominations, the shrine has been painstakingly restored to its former glory -- including a warm reddish-yellow coloring.
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church, but disputes between the three had led to renovations being delayed for decades.
Christians made up more than 18 percent of the population of the Holy Land when Israel was founded in 1948, but now form less than two percent, mostly Orthodox.
This year, extra police were deployed in Jerusalem to prevent attacks during Easter and the Jewish festival of Passover.
That did not prevent a Palestinian man, described by police as "very mentally disturbed", stabbing to death a British woman on Friday in a tram passing near the walls of the Old City.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is enforcing a week-long closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which began on Monday coinciding with the Jewish Passover holiday.
The restrictions were partially lifted to allow Christian Palestinians into Jerusalem for Easter celebrations, pending the approval of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of the Government’s Activities in the Territories (COGAT).
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