PIN supports freedom to attend Holy Fire Easter celebration

Episcopal Peace Fellowship-Palestine Israel Network
Posted Apr 14, 2023

Christians celebrate Holy Fire last year in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem. Photo: Greek Patriarchate

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network (EPF PIN) stands in solidarity with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem in their joint public statement accusing Israeli authorities of “unreasonable and unprecedented” restrictions of the rights of Christians to participate in the annual Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday service known as the Holy Fire.

During this service, the Greek Patriarch enters a cave within the Edicule (“little house”) in a darkened Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition says Jesus’ body lay after his crucifixion. The Patriarch then emerges bearing a lighted candle representing the resurrected Christ. That flame is shared to the candles of worshippers present, then carried on to religious communities around the world with this message: “al-Masih qaam! Hakan qaam!” Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Tension has been high in Jerusalem after Israeli riot police savagely beat Muslim worshippers seeking to defend the al-Aqsa mosque compound. Israeli authorities are now seeking to limit participation in this Saturday’s service to a maximum 1,800 guests of the Patriarchs’ choice. In the past, attendance at this pinnacle service of the Christian calendar has attracted 10-12,000 worshippers, with thousands more gathered outside. Last year, citing Covid-19 concerns, the Israeli police limited attendance to 4,000 people, though many more pilgrims pushed their way past the barricades.

The three Church leaders vowed to “continue to uphold the Status Quo customs” that have continued for nearly two millennia, inviting attendance by “all who wish to worship with us.” The statement concluded with a recognition that though police will act as they will, the Churches “will freely worship, and do so in peace.”

In his statement, the Patriarch expressed his concern that the restrictions “will prevent worshippers from attending, particularly our local community.” The leaders issuing the statement represent the three oldest and largest Christian communities in Jerusalem. As one Christian layperson told us, “This is an attempt to break the indigenous Christians’ ties to their spiritual home” in Jerusalem. Similar actions which isolate Muslim holy sites and evict Palestinian residents within a planned national park continue in the rapidly disappearing Silwan neighborhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israeli authorities did not propose any attendance restrictions during last week’s western calendar observance of Easter, when many evangelical Christians were visiting Jerusalem. Earlier this year, two ultraorthodox Knesset members submitted a bill which would have imposed fines and up to a 2-year jail sentence on Christians seeking to proselytize adults or children in Israel. The bill was quickly shelved after American evangelical Christians complained to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The proposed attendance limit comes at a time when there has been a marked increase in assaults on indigenous Christians and church properties in Jerusalem and Israel, including arson at a church along the Sea of Galilee, vandalism of a Christian graveyard in Jerusalem, and a recent knife attack in a church on the Mount of Olives. Incidents of spitting and bullying by Zionist youths against Christian priests, and even tourists in Jerusalem’s Old City are becoming a daily occurrence.

Our support for the Patriarchs and Custodian statement is consistent with Resolution B003, adopted by General Convention in 2018, whose second resolve states our “conviction that Jerusalem is a holy city to the three Abrahamic faiths, where full respect must be accorded to the civil rights and religious interests of all persons; that all holy places in the city must be equally protected and accessible to all adherents; and that the city’s status as a community for all Christians, Muslims, and Jews must be honored”.

We are grateful for the bold response of the Patriarchs and Custodian in defending the religious rights of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem. Although not directly involved in issuing the statement, we also appreciate the efforts of the Rev. Don Binder, Chaplain to Archbishop Hosam Naoum, the Anglican/Episcopal Archbishop in Jerusalem, who brought their statement to our attention.