04/13/2023, 21.33
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Jerusalem Churches slam Israel for 'unreasonable' restrictions on Holy Fire ceremony

Israeli authorities have limited the number of participants to 2,000, far below the usual 10,000. They also require the Churches to issue “invitations” for admissions. For the World Council of Churches, this endangers freedom of worship. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate, and the Custody of the Holy Land slam Israel’s “unreasonable” demands.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Christian Churches released statements yesterday critical of Israel’s restrictions on Orthodox Easter celebrations.

This is of particular concern with regard to the Holy Fire (Holy Light) ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Great Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter.

Israel’s restrictions follow a pattern that saw the authorities cancel travel permits for Gaza Christians who wanted to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank (Bethlehem), at a time of heightened tensions and attacks against Christian buildings and symbolic sites.

In its statement, the World Council of Churches (WCC) expressed “serious concern” about the impact of the restrictions on freedom of religion.

“This Easter ceremony is one of the most important for the Orthodox and other Eastern churches, for the wider Christian community in the Holy Land, and for pilgrims attending from all over the world,” reads the WCC press release, citing WCC general secretary Rev Prof Dr Jerry Pillay.

Unprecedented, except during the COVID-19 pandemic, “The restrictions include a limit of 2,000 on the number of worshippers (down from 10,000 in previous years), 200 police stationed inside the church, and security checkpoints throughout Jerusalem’s Old City (impeding access for worshippers and the subsequent procession).”

Rev Pillay notes that Holy Land Churches and Christians view the restrictions on the Holy Fire ceremony as unnecessary and harmful for their religious freedom. He goes on to say that “Church leaders in Jerusalem have in recent years made several joint statements highlighting the growing threat to the Christian community of the Holy Land from radical extremist elements in Israeli society”.

Hence, “The WCC calls on the Israeli authorities to reconsider these heavy-handed restrictions, and to refrain from measures that further imperil the continuity of Christian worship, life and community in the city and region”.

In a separate statement released by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Status Quo Committee of the Churches (which includes the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as well as the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarchate) complains about the impossibility of coordinating with Israeli authorities, calling the latter’s restrictions on access to places of worship both "unreasonable” and “unprecedented”.

“Police are unfairly and inappropriately placing the burden on the churches to issue invitations, while tying the Churches' hands with unreasonable restrictions that will prevent worshippers from attending, particularly our local community.”

As made clear in other statements, the three Churches will “continue to uphold the Status Quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend. With that made clear, we leave the authorities to act as they will. The Churches will freely worship and do so in peace.”

For their part, Israeli authorities justify the restrictions by pointing to the Mount Meron incident in 2021 when the first large-scale religious gathering after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic left 45 people dead at a Jewish pilgrimage in Israel’s Upper Galilee region.

Christian leaders point out instead that no incident has ever occurred during Christian religious services, even the largest; in their view, imposing limits is a violation of religious freedom due to the radicalisation of Israeli leaders and parts of Israeli society.

Similarly, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said as much speaking to AsiaNews before Easter. “I am against the very idea that there should be permits to go to places of worship,” he explained; instead, he blames “restrictions and problems" on a "political context" of extreme radicalisation under Israel’s most right-wing government.

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See also
Coronavirus: Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem open only for services without pilgrims
26/03/2020 14:33
Churches of the Holy Land against the extension of a park to the Mount of Olives
21/02/2022 19:38
Custos of the Holy Land: a "normal" Easter, overflowing with pilgrims
Two centenaries for the Eastern Churches
11/10/2017 11:03
Christians in Holy Land call for an 'open Jerusalem' at Easter
12/04/2017 16:14


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