As Orthodox Christians held Easter masses Saturday in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world, President Obama greeted the faithful saying Jesus' sacrifice "so that we might have eternal life" is an apt reminder this year with the region facing violent persecution.
"For millions of Orthodox Christians, this is a joyful time," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House on Saturday. "But it's also a reminder of the sacrifice Christ made so that we might have eternal life. His decision to choose love in the face of hate; hope in the face of despair is an example we should always strive to follow."
It's especially important to remember this year "as members of the Orthodox community have been confronted with persecution and violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa," the president added. "For centuries, the region and the world has been enriched by the contributions of Orthodox communities in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq."
Obama also called for protection of freedom of religion in the region. "As a nation, we reaffirm our commitment to protecting universal human rights including the freedom of religion," he said. "And in this season of hope and restoration, we celebrate the transformational power of sacrificial love."
In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which represents more than 10 percent of the nation's population, held the first Easter mass on Saturday led by Pope Tawadros II.
The Coptic pope, who took office last November, led the mass at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo, which was attacked by .Islamists weeks earlier. The church's leader prayed for security and prosperity, The Associated Press reported.
The division between secular, moderate Muslims and Islamists has deepened in Egypt after Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the winner in a controversial election last year.
The Coptic pope on Saturday announced the names of Cabinet officials who greeted him by phone. The congregants applauded as the names of Morsi's critics were read out, including that of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of the influential al-Azhar Islamic seminary, and Sheik Mazhar Shahin, a cleric who preaches at a mosque overlooking Tahrir Square and who had been temporarily suspended for allegedly criticizing Morsi.
Among the dignitaries who attended the evening prayer service were the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, and Muslim figures opposed to the Egyptian president.
More than 250 miles away in Jerusalem, about 10,000 people gathered on Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to witness a flame that is believed to emerge miraculously from the tomb of Jesus each year the day before Easter Sunday as per the older Julian calendar.
At the special ceremony at the church, built at a site where Jesus was crucified and buried, the Patriarch received the fire and passed it around to other clergymen from other denominations, and it eventually reached the gathered pilgrims, RT.com reported.
The Holy Fire is revered by many as the power of Resurrection of Jesus and the fire of the Burning Bush of Mount Sinai as mentioned in the Old Testament.
The miracle has been documented each year for over 1,000 years. Christians in many countries, including Georgia, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt, watch the ceremony live on television each year. After the ceremony, the Holy Fire is also brought to some of these countries.
The Holy Fire ceremony typically begins at noon with a procession involving singing of hymns by the clergy who take three rounds of the church. The Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem or another Orthodox Archbishop then offers a prayer, removes his robe and enters alone into the sepulchre after being examined by Jewish Israeli authorities to prove he has nothing to light the fire.
Some pilgrims have claimed that flames received from the Holy Fire do not burn their hair, faces or clothes during the first 33 minutes of its appearance.