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Jerusalem church glows in 'Holy Fire' ritual attended by thousands

Orthodox Christians gather with lit candles around the Edicule, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, during the Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre church
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Thousands on Saturday celebrated the traditional "Holy Fire" ceremony of blazing candles at Christianity's holiest site in Jerusalem to mark the eve of Orthodox Easter.

Tens of thousands of faithful have attended the ceremony in earlier years but coronavirus constraints severely limited attendance on the past two occasions.

This year, joyous, shouting faithful crowded together unmasked, holding aloft wads of thin candles bound together to produce thick orange flames that danced inside the darkened Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church is built on the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Israel's Foreign Ministry gave a crowd estimate of thousands, who celebrated in a tense Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces at the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Thick orange flames danced inside the church, Christianity's holiest site

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lies in east Jerusalem, occupied and later annexed by Israel following the Six-Day War of 1967.

Worshippers had waited from the morning hours with candles in hand. They cheered with excitement and bells rang in the early afternoon when Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III exited the Edicule, traditionally believed to be Christ's burial place, holding burning candles.

The flames spread from believer to believer, filling the ancient church with light.

Anthony Botros, who came all the way from Canada, said that being able to participate in the ceremony was "honestly surreal."

"I would not have imagined I would ever be here. It's something you can't describe. You just have to be there and experience it. Just tears. So peaceful," the 25-year-old told AFP.

Church leaders had initially been at odds with Israel over the event's size, after authorities sought to limit the number of participants to ensure their safety.

On Thursday, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said it had rejected police limiting the numbers, which it considered an "infringement to the right to freedom of worship," noting the church's capacity of 11,000 people.

An Orthodox priest displays lit candles

The Patriarchate petitioned the police decision at the Supreme Court, with a compromise allowing 4,000 believers to attend the ceremony in the church and square outside, a police spokeswoman told AFP.

Israel has tightened limitations on the number of celebrants at all religious festivals after a stampede at a Jewish festival last April caused the death of 45 men and boys.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church.

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.