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Jerusalem's Christian community observes the Holy Fire ceremony

The following reflection was written by Clayton Goodgame who spent several months as an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in the fall 2011. Before working with our office, Clayton had spent two years working with Sabeel, the ecumenical liberation theology center in Jerusalem.

This article is also available here as a PDF file.

On a cloudy Saturday morning just before Easter 2011, I met Hisham and Waleed, Palestinian brothers who are Orthodox Christians, to drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem for the annual Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the most dramatic and moving pageants in all of Christian tradition. The ceremony was scheduled for early afternoon, just a 10-mile journey south from Ramallah. But my companions knew well the obstacles that awaited Christians traveling to the holy city from the West Bank so we left in darkness, around 5:30 in the morning.

Ramallah has long been home to a community of Palestinian Christians who for centuries made frequent visits to Jerusalem, to shop and see friends and worship. Since the 1967 war, however, the UN-instituted “Green Line” has divided Israel and the West Bank, and for the last decade the two cities have been separated by a 25 foot high separation barrier and the most famous of the West Bank checkpoints, Qalandia, named after the town and refugee camp at its mouth.

Getting to the Old City from inside the Wall

As we descended from Ramallah, we approached the camp and the traffic circle near the checkpoint where, even at this hour, throngs of Palestinians from all over the northern West Bank poured from service taxis and buses. As cars and trucks crawled past, a young boy from the camp directed traffic in a homemade reflector vest while another rushed back and forth between a lean-to propped against an army barricade and the street selling Amr Diab (think Egyptian Ricky Martin) CDs and plastic cups of coffee spiced with cardamom. At the checkpoint workers, worshipers, students and the sick crowded into narrow cages and turnstiles manned by Israeli soldiers, attempting to cross.

In the parking lot near the crossing, I spotted several familiar figures – old women and young men who approach the border each day without the permits that Israeli authorities sparingly issue for travel to Jerusalem. Still, these Palestinians attempt to cross, often hauling massive tarpaulin bags of vegetables, zatar, sage, and other herbs that fetch higher prices in the big city. Many times I have seen these women and men get rejected at one window and simply move to a different line until the chance arose to slip behind someone in the turnstile and sneak under the glass. Sometimes it took hours, but it often worked. Time and again, when I was returning on the bus to Ramallah after a day of work in Jerusalem, sitting beside me, bag empty, would be one of these determined souls, heading home for the evening, with plans to return the next morning.

Bypassing the Qalandia checkpoint, my companions and I drove southeast along the wall towards Hizma, the checkpoint designated for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Hizma was not built for Palestinians, but those with blue Jerusalem residency cards show up anyway and are usually let through, if only because it would be more of a hassle for the guards to turn them away with so many settlers honking vigorously in the queue behind them. This time everything went smoothly for Hisham and Waleed and me – and once we were through the checkpoint, the roads were clear and illuminated by a vague nimbus in the east.

We arrived near the Old City on Az-Zahra street and parked the car. Andafter a quick breakfast of zatar sfiha and some pomegranate juice, we entered through the Damascus Gate. As we descended the worn stone steps into the souq we were stopped by police and shepherded away from the direct route into the Christian Quarter. Khan Az-Zeit street was entirely blocked off to foot traffic so we turned and climbed up a more roundabout path through the back alleys of the Jabsheh neighborhood where Palestinian Christian youth – mostly Orthodox, but with friends from various other denominations – were congregating, trying to get closer to the church. These days, unless families can wrangle hard-to-get permits to enter the church on Easter, they are turned away by Israeli officials for stated reasons of crowd control and security. Most older Christians and young children do not even attempt to see the ceremony. The youth are another story. Each year, native Jerusalemite Christians are denied permits to attend the Holy Fire, and each year several hundred of their young people go anyway.

The Greek Orthodox Church and the controversy over land and language

The Israeli government regularly withholds permits from West Bank Christians seeking to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem, usually under the pretext of security, though many times no reason is given at all. Easter permits for Jerusalem residents, however, are regulated by both the government and church leaders; in this case, because the Holy Fire ismostly a Greek Orthodox holiday, the authority is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Ever since Israel gained its independence in 1948 the Orthodox Church has performed a precarious balancing act, attempting to appeal to the government and its own religious community, which, in Israel and the West Bank, is made up almost entirely of Palestinians.

After the Ottoman Empire collapsed more than a century ago, the patriarchate was left with large land holdings in the holy city. When Israel came into the picture, church leaders started making real estate deals with the state (the Knesset and the prime minister’s residence, for example, are located on Orthodox land leased to Israel) in exchange for various political privileges. These land deals have created substantial political unrest among Orthodox Palestinian Christians, many of whom still hold defunct land deeds and keys to homes in West Jerusalem from before 1948 (homes which often still bear the crest of St. George – patron saint of Palestinians – etched in their cornerstones).

The relationship the Orthodox Church has with Israel, enough to anger any Orthodox Palestinian, is exacerbated by the fact that none of the decision-making Orthodox clerical hierarchy (which is made up of Greeks) above the level of priest includes Palestinian clergy. The one notable exception is Bishop Atallah Henna, an outspoken leader in the community who nevertheless presides over a region of the West Bank with very few Christians. In addition, the patriarchate to this day does not hold a full mass in Arabic inside the Holy Sepulcher Church; rather, Orthodox Palestinian Christians in the Old City worship at St. Jacob’s Cathedral outside the main church, while other services are held in Greek within.

Consequently, as the years pass and the population of West Bank Christians declines as a whole (due mostly to emigration), Orthodox Christians have emigrated more often than Roman Catholics or Melkites, the next largest Palestinian denominations. Congregants from all three churches suffer from the same occupation, but the Melkites, for example, use Arabic as the spoken and liturgical language of the church, and the church leaders are local Palestinians.

But there are some Orthodox Palestinians who choose to struggle from within the church. Many young Orthodox proudly describe themselves as “blue-boned,” a reference to Ottoman times, when Christians in Palestine were tortured by Turks and forced to convert to Islam. Those who survived and retained their faith were proud of the bluish scars from wounds and chains. As a result, some Christians today will not convert or leave under any circumstances, and each year many young Orthodox Palestinians make their way to the Holy Fire without permits or support from the church leadership as a way of living in that tradition.

Easter demonstrations as coercive nonviolence

It is no easy path. Each Easter season, the Christian youth and the Israeli police stage a ritual dance in which the former slowly and peacefully force their way to the church and the latter attempt to stop them. The police generally do not wish to fire weapons in the Old City because of the riots that would ensue, so their efforts to stop the crowds moving to the church usually serve only to delay the worshipers. In all probability they know the crowd will prevail, but they must follow their orders; hence the dance.

When I came to witness the ceremony, the police set up a barricade separating Jabsheh from Christian Quarter Road, the major artery leading to the church, and announced that no one would be allowed in. Periodically groups of foreign pilgrims would inch their way to the front of the crowd as we were waiting to begin and they were allowed through, but everyone else was prohibited from entering.

We remained in Jabsheh for two hours while more worshipers arrived and different groups celebrated the holiday with traditional songs, dancing and singing to the beat of the tabla, a traditional hand drum. Finally, around 11:30 am, a couple of hours before the ceremony, the crowd began to surge, tidally, towards the barricade. No one was armed, and no one threw stones or hit police, but with each person pushing his neighbor forward the force of the crowd moved the unfixed aluminum barriers backwards into the street. Police officers did their best to push back but the 10-15 officers and soldiers available were no match for 200 young men and women, and eventually the barrier toppled over. Some in the crowds started running into the road towards the church but as they turned onto Christian Quarter Road, which is wider, there were more police barriers set up at intervals over the hundred or so yards to the church entrance.

Once again everyone was stopped, this time with many more police behind the barricades. Several Palestinian youth leaders spoke with them, trying to assuage their anger. But the crowd moved of its own accord in waves, now surging forward, now holding back. The chief Israeli officer on the street threatened the leaders with arrest and more severe riot control measures but the youth continued to press forward, occasionally breaking out in songs and traditional Easter chants.

After another hour of exhausting and sweaty pushing and one more barricade fallen, a Palestinian parish priest from the Greek Orthodox Church and the Palestinian mukhtar for the Old City approached the barrier police from behind and conferred with the chief; after a few minutes the officer spoke to superiors on the radio and allowed the two to slowly lead the crowd into the church.

With the barriers set aside, relieved police officers stepped away and the group descended the steps into the open courtyard, approaching the main doors to the church. Soldiers stood in groups on either side of the entrance, where areas were roped off for different tourist groups andofficials. We crossed the threshold and to my surprise the main chambers of the church were still unfilled. The upper levels overlooking the tomb were almost completely empty and the main hall, called the Catholicon, was mostly inhabited by clergy and tourists. Even during the ceremony, when there were hundreds of people crowded around the Old City still trying to get in through various gates and barriers, the church was maybe two-thirds full.
Sebt An-Nour – Saturday of Light

The crowd circled around to the back of the Catholicon and proceeded, still chanting (to the dismay of many pilgrims), down the center aisle and into the rotunda. Hisham and Waleed stayed in the aisle as they were part of the procession line for the oldest Orthodox Christian families of Jerusalem, and all other space in the Orthodox chamber was roped off for specific visitors. I circled around to the Armenian shrine near the entrance of the church to get a view of the tomb and the fire lighting. 

According to Orthodox tradition, the holy fire ceremony is an annual miracle; each year, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem approaches the tomb – alongwith Armenian Orthodox and Coptic Church leaders, dressed in full regalia – while his fans chant “Axios, Axios” (worthy, worthy) as he passes. Before the tomb, he removes his vestments and bejeweled mitre and is inspected by a representative of the Israeli police for any concealed matches or lighter. Then, holding a bundle of 33 unlit candles in each hand he enters the tomb,drops to his knees, and prays. And each year the candles are lit, the faithful believe, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sabt el Noor

As I watched on my tip-toes behind a group of carbine-wielding soldiers, I caught a glimpse of the patriarch as he exited the tomb, candles ablaze, and in a moment the entire hall was on fire. The priests holding candles were first to spread the flames, and in turn they lit the candles held by worshipers standing all around the tomb, in the hall, on the balcony, outside the church. And for a moment the room was arrested in awe. Full with the heavy smell of incense and the warm sensation of many small fires, pilgrims, clergy, and local Palestinians flooded out of the church to ringing of bells. As they left, the rotunda filled with thick swirls of smoke, opaque near the ground and thinning as it rose, funneling up towards the ceiling and exiting in a rush through the dome of the rotunda, evaporating into the sunlight.

Hisham, Waleed, and I spent some time outside the church with others reliving the past several hours, and then, exhausted and exhilarated and hungry, we began the long journey back home.

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