The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has denounced gathering restrictions imposed on them by Israeli officials ahead of their traditional Holy Fire ritual later this month, claiming that they infringe on their religious liberty.
On the Saturday before Orthodox Easter, tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims gather at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built at a site where Jesus was believed to be crucified and buried, to witness a flame that appears to emerge miraculously from the tomb.
Orthodox Easter will fall on April 24 this year.
In a statement released on Monday, the Patriarchate reported that Israeli police were going to restrict the Holy Fire gathering to 1,000 people inside the church, with 500 allowed on the church’s yards and overlooking roof.
“The Patriarchate believes that there is no justification for these additional unjust restrictions, and affirms its explicit, clear and complete rejection of all restrictions,” stated the Patriarchate.
It added: “The Patriarchate is fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship and with its unacceptable methods of dealing with the God-given rights of Christians to practice rituals and have to access their holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.”
The Orthodox body went on to state that it “will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares.”
“The police must stop imposing restrictions and violence that, unfortunately, have become part of our sacred ceremonies,” continued the Patriarchate.
“We also urge our congregations to uphold our historical heritage through participating in the rituals and celebrations of Easter and Holy Fire Saturday this year in the Church of Holy Sepulcher and its vicinity.”
Last December, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem released a statement expressing concern about a rising trend of violence against Christians in the Holy Land, and called for the creation of a special cultural heritage zone for Christians in the city.
“Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives,” they stated last year.
“These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
The church leaders also said that while they appreciate the Israeli government’s commitment “to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” they believe that this commitment is being undermined by “local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups.”
In February, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority announced that it was abandoning a plan to absorb Christian holy sites on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives into a national park, following the protests of many local Christian leaders.