Christian pilgrims gather in Jerusalem for fire ritual


Thousands of Christian pilgrims crowded into a Jerusalem church for an ancient fire ritual Saturday that will see them passing lit flames through the packed holy site in a celebration of Jesus' resurrection.

The pilgrims packed into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and into the narrow cobblestone alleys around it, many grasping bundles of 33 candles, symbolizing every year of Jesus' life.

They were hoping to see flames taken from a fire that worshippers believe emerges from the place where they believe Jesus was briefly entombed.

“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 and very unique possibility being here now,” said Nerea Craditotto, a Spanish pilgrim.

Dozens of black-clad Israeli police and khaki-uniformed military forces milled among them, trying to control the flow of pilgrims into the Sepulcher, where most Christian traditions hold that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said there were “thousands” of personnel in the area, but had no precise number.

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 clothes. For many of them, the day is the pinnacle of Easter celebrations. Eastern Orthodox Christians 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.

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.

During the annual ceremony, top Eastern Orthodox clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus' tomb.

They will 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.

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.