Pilgrims gather in Jerusalem for fire ritual (AP) Associated Press) By ALON BERNSTEIN JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 04/14/12 2:29 pm ET)
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JERUSALEM – Thousands of Christians lit candles and torches from a
flame that emerged from the tomb of Jesus in a Jerusalem church
Saturday as they conducted an ancient fire ritual that celebrates the
Plumes of smoke wafted through the crammed Church of the Holy
Sepulcher as jostling pilgrims carrying crosses, candles and mobile
phones set to record the event passed the flame from one to another.
Flanking the chanting crowds were dozens of black-clad Israeli
police, specialized khaki-clad riot-prevention forces and border
security guards keeping order. Photographers teetered over the crowds
trying to snap photos. Palestinian women ululated as the fire
emerged. Young men banged on drums and a few heated pilgrims got into
fistfights that were broken up by the Israeli forces.
Amid them all were clerics in colorful robes designating their
particular church, trying to get as close as possible to the ornate
chamber in the cavernous Holy Sepulcher where many Christian
traditions believe that Jesus was briefly entombed after he was
Once they had their candles lit, the pilgrims and clerics quickly
rushed outside of the ancient church, seeking to pass on the flames
to pilgrims waiting in the narrow cobblestone alleys nearby.
During the annual ceremony, top clerics enter the Edicule, the small
chamber marking the site of Jesus´ tomb. They emerge after some time
to reveal candles lit with "holy fire" — said to be miraculously lit
as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame´s
source are a closely guarded secret.
Believing Christians seek to spread the holy fire around the world —
symbolizing the light of Christ and his resurrection after death.
"I am here because I would like to see the Easter Week from the Holy
Land, because I think it is a very unique experience," said Nerea
Craditotto, a Spanish pilgrim.
The pilgrims included visiting priests in black robes, elderly women
wearing floral headscarves knotted under their chins, curious
tourists and local Palestinian Christians dressed in their best
For many of them, the day is the pinnacle of Easter celebrations.
Eastern Orthodox churches and several others celebrate Easter this
week using the older Julian calendar.
Many of the Palestinians obtained Israeli military permission to
leave their West Bank towns to enter Jerusalem for the event. In a
long-standing grievance, Palestinian Christians and Muslims must seek
Israeli military permission to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem.
After the holy fire appeared in the Church of the Holy Seplechur, it
started to make its way to points throughout the world.
A Greek religious official carried a torch lit by the fire on a
private jet chartered by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, bringing
the holy flame to believers in Greece and from there to Cyprus. Other
church representatives flew with lit torches to Russia, Romania and
other predominantly eastern European countries where there are many
Eastern Orthodox Christian faithful, said Dimitri Diliani, president
of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land.
Two flames were also transferred to Israeli military checkpoints near
the West Bank Palestinian towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah, and
another was brought to the Israeli-controlled border with Jordan,
where it was passed off to a church official in Jordan to be spread
to other neighboring Arab countries, Diliani said.
The holy fire ritual, which has been practiced for at least 1,200
years, is particularly risky, because the cavernous, winding
Sepulcher church has only one exit — the main door. Ambulances cannot
reach the area.
This year, as most years, the holy fire spread without incident.
Despite the crowds, the open flames, and the single exit, there has
been only one recorded major deadly incident linked to the ritual. In
1834, according to English traveler Robert Curzon, panicked pilgrims
prompted a stampede trying to leave the church, and several hundred
people were crushed or suffocated to death in the attempt.
But the six Christian sects that stake claim to different sections of
the church have been reluctant to build an emergency exit or a fire
escape. The sometimes feuding rivals don´t want to give up any of
their staked-out real estate to construct a second exit. ___ With
additional reporting from Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem. Follow Hadid on
twitter.com/diaahadid (© 2012 The Associated Press 04/14/12)
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