Israeli forces beat Christian worshippers headed toward holy-ceremony

AP , Ahram Online , Saturday 15 Apr 2023

Israeli forces on Saturday beat Christian worshippers heading toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre amid growing restrictions on the freedom of religion in Jerusalem, a video circulated by Sky News Arabia showed.

Christian worshippers wait behind barriers set up by Israeli security forces at a gate in Jerusalem
Christian worshippers wait behind barriers set up by Israeli security forces at a gate in Jerusalem s old city that leads to the the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter Saturday, on April 15, 2023. AFP


This comes after the Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused Israeli police of infringing on the freedom of worshippers with “heavy-handed” restrictions on how many pilgrims can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony, an ancient ritual that sparked tensions this year with the Israeli police, AP reported.

Israeli police said the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s celebration at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede in 2021 at a packed holy site left 45 people dead.

“It is sad for me that I cannot get to the church, where my heart, my faith, wants me to be,” said 44-year-old Jelena Novakovic from Montenegro, who, like thousands of others, was trapped behind metal barricades that sealed off alleys leading to the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

In some cases, the pushing and shoving escalated into violence. Footage showed Israeli police dragging and beating several worshippers, thrusting a Coptic Priest against the stone wall and tackling one woman to the ground. At least one older man was whisked, bleeding, into an ambulance.

The Greek Orthodox patriarchate has lambasted the restrictions as a hindrance of religious freedom and called on all worshippers to flood the church despite Israeli warnings as Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.

As early as 8 a.m., Israeli police were turning back most worshippers from the gates of the Old City — including tourists who flew from Europe and Palestinian Christians who traveled from across the occupied West Bank — directing them to an overflow area with a livestream.

Angry pilgrims and clergy jostled to get through while police struggled to hold them back, allowing only a trickle of ticketed visitors and local residents inside. Over 2,000 police officers swarmed the stone ramparts.

Ana Dumitrel, a Romanian pilgrim surrounded by police outside the Old City, said she came to pay tribute to her late mother, whose experience witnessing the holy fire in 1987 long inspired her.

“I wanted to tell my family, my children, that I was here as my mom was," she said, straining over the crowds to assess whether she had a chance.

After the ceremony, Palestinian Christians carried the fire through the streets and lit the tapers of the worshippers waiting outside. Chartered planes will ferry the flickering lanterns to Russia, Greece and beyond with great fanfare.

The dispute over the church capacity comes as Christians in the Holy Land — including the head of the Roman Catholic church in the region as well as local Palestinians and Armenians — say that Israel’s most right-wing government in history has empowered Jewish extremists who have escalated their vandalism of religious property and harassment of clergy. Israel says it's committed to ensuring freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Friction over the Orthodox Easter ritual has been fueled in part by a rare convergence of holidays in Jerusalem’s bustling Old City. A few hundred meters away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Muslims fasting for the 24th day of the holy month of Ramadan were gathering for midday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Earlier this week, tens of thousands of Jews flocked to the Western Wall during the Passover holiday.

Tensions surged last week, when an Israeli police raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Jerusalem's most sensitive site, ignited Muslim outrage around the world. The mosque is the third holiest site of Islam. It stands on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who revere it as the Temple Mount.

Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of the city's eastern half, in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future independent state.

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