by Sami El-Yousef
Faithful participate in the Holy Fire celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo: Oliver Weiken/epa/Corbis)
Childhood dreams. I was 14 years old when my father decided I was ready to participate in the Holy Fire celebration on Holy Saturday, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition.
I belong to one of the 13 oldest Christian families in Jerusalem. Hundreds of years ago, locals commemorated these early Christians by placing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 13 banners, each named after one of these families. The only privilege the families’ descendants enjoy is that once a year, on Holy Saturday, a representative from each family carries the banner in a procession that marches around Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre three times.
After the procession, the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the sealed tomb where the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, symbolizing the flame of the Resurrection. The fire is then passed out to the waiting crowds through a small window in the outer chamber of the edicule, which enshrines the tomb. Within seconds, the whole church lights up. This must be the most amazing surge of faith I experience throughout year. At that precise moment, I feel renewed as a Christian and prepared to face the many challenges we Arab Christians confront daily in the Holy Land. Since my first experience, I have never missed this amazing celebration except when I was out of the country.
Recent trends. Every year, as Easter approaches, we begin discussing who will represent our family on Holy Saturday. Though I must admit that, in recent years, with so many of us emigrating from the Holy Land, selecting our representative has become less of a problem. The number of adults still around who can carry the heavy banner has dwindled to a handful. As a matter of fact, about half of those 13 families have no one left in the Holy Land. For the last few years, three of my relatives have joined me in carrying the banners representing these families — an honor we deeply cherish.
These days, the discussion has shifted in my family from “who will carry the banner” to “who can even access the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” For the past few years, Israeli authorities have closed the Old City and the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Holy Week, preventing local Christian and pilgrims from attending the Holy Fire celebration.
My 88-year-old father remembers when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem. During Holy Week, fleets of buses packed with pilgrims from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq would park along the road to Jericho. The crowds of pilgrims would walk to the celebration in the Old City. Their numbers far exceeded today’s turnout at Easter time, yet the Old City never closed its gates and the streets inside were never blocked. Access was open to all.
Orthodox priests await the arrival of the Holy Fire. (photo: Oliver Weiken/epa/Corbis)
A couple of years ago, Israeli authorities attempted to impose a permit system limiting the number of people who could attend the Holy Fire celebration. Incensed, local Christians demanded the government respect the church’s centuries-old Status Quo, which prohibits any restrictions on the faithful visiting the church. After all, pilgrims naturally want to get as close as possible to Christianity’s birthplace, especially during Holy Week.
Detained at St. Jacob’s. This year, despite outcry from church leaders, members of civil society and the Christian community at large, Israeli authorities made it next to impossible to enter the Old City on Holy Saturday. In the early morning hours, police set up roadblocks at all the Old City’s gates and dozens of manned checkpoints along the streets and alleyways leading to the church. Authorities cooperated with church leaders only to the extent of allowing a limited number of local Christians access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, provided that police escort them. Israeli authorities also detained a small group of locals at Saint Jacob’s Orthodox Church from early morning until just 15 minutes before the Holy Fire celebration began.
Since I live in the Old City, it was very strange to be escorted by Israeli police officers to my church. I felt ashamed to have capitulated to such treatment, but regretfully that was the only way to get to my destination. It was even stranger to witness St. Jacob’s Church — my parish — transformed into a holding cell, a detention center if you will, for hours.
Though the group detained in the church numbered no more than 70, many panicked when they realized that its two doors were locked shut from the outside by Israeli police. Despite our loud cries from inside and numerous phone calls, the police refused to let us out. My frightened cousin asked a church elder and trustee what would happen if a fire broke out. Not sure himself, the wise man could only tell us to keep our faith.
Finally, St. Jacob’s priest and the mukhtar were released, then the rest of us. We hurriedly made our way to the Christian Quarter to catch up with a troop of Boy Scouts and prominent members of the local community, who were waiting for us to begin the procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Traditionally, the city allows 30 minutes for the Holy Saturday procession to march from the Christian Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This year it was reduced to 15 minutes. Who knows what next year will bring given recent trends.
Surprises. When the Boy Scouts, who led the procession, started playing the drums, the eager crowd began pushing and prodding one another along, in their usual way, from the Christian Quarter to the Holy Sepulchre. The Status Quo calls for us to be at the church’s main entrance at precisely 12:30 p.m. For close to 30 years of my life, I participated in this celebration, and we never missed the deadline.
When we arrived in the church’s courtyard, to our surprise, no one was there to welcome us but a long line of Israeli police officers. Normally, thousands of locals and pilgrims greet us in the courtyard. Our procession’s leader alerted us that our scheduled time was fast approaching, and we had to advance to the church entrance to make room for similar processions from other Christian communities arriving in the courtyard behind us.
Once inside the church, we were surprised a second time to be welcomed by only a few worshipers. For as long as I can remember, the church was always filled to capacity, packed with hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims and tourists on Holy Saturday. This year, Israeli authorities prohibited entry to pilgrims so police could access it freely and easily. Has the formula changed? Is the church for worshipers or for the 1,500 police officers (according to Israeli police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby) on the premises that day?
Police limit access to the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre, where thousands typically greet the procession. (photo: CNEWA, Jerusalem)
What a strange world we live in. Instead of faithful pilgrims, armed police officers, with guns in plain sight on their waists, welcomed us inside the church on Holy Saturday. Where else on earth do hundreds of armed police officers patrol the inside of a church other than here in the Old City — the holiest of places for Christianity? What an ugly sight indeed.
Once the last of the procession cleared the threshold of the church’s entrance, participants took their designated places, right outside the tomb adjacent to the small window, through which the Holy Fire would be handed to them about an hour later. For our part, the representatives of the 13 families rushed to the storage area to bring out the banners. As each of us held our respective banners, we proudly lined up and readied to lead the small procession around Christ’s tomb. Upon the patriarch’s signal, the 13 of us carrying the banners began to proceed around the tomb, followed by the choir from St. Jacob’s Church, clergy and, lastly, the patriarch.
After the procession finished its third turn around the tomb, all lights in the church were shut off and the patriarch entered the sealed tomb. A few minutes later, he emerged holding the Holy Fire.
The mystified worshipers passed the fire from one to the other. In those moments, it seemed as though the skies opened up.It was a breathtaking experience. The church’s bells were rung to announce the arrival of the Holy Fire. The participants chanted as they passed the fire and hurriedly carried it to the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site of a Greek Orthodox monastery.
We encountered our third harsh surprise when we reached the church’s roof. For centuries, thousands of Christians from Jerusalem, the Galilee, the West Bank and Gaza gathered on the roof to witness and receive the Holy Fire. They then would march through the streets and alleyways in the Christian Quarter with the fire in hand. This year, there was no enthusiastic crowd of faithful to greet us. In fact, the vast roof was all but empty apart from police barricades and police officers, who directed us immediately off the roof and out of the Greek Orthodox Convent.
Indeed, this year’s Holy Fire celebration proved a strange one. First, roadblocks prohibited pilgrims from accessing the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then, our procession arrived at an empty courtyard, entered a nearly empty church and, finally, ascended onto an empty roof. What was gained in making it so difficult for us Christians in the Holy Land to practice our faith?
Police barricade the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, where thousands typically gather to receive the Holy Fire. (photo: CNEWA, Jerusalem)
Happy ending? There was, however, a happy ending. Once we arrived in the Christian Quarter, carrying the Holy Fire, the Israeli police withdrew and left us alone. At that moment, a festive feeling came over all of us there.
But what about the thousands of local Christians from the Galilee, West Bank, Gaza and even Jerusalem whom Israeli authorities impeded from joining us in this most holy celebration? I am sure they nonetheless celebrated Holy Saturday in their churches and within their communities. I am also sure it was not the same for them — unable to celebrate in Jerusalem as they have for generations — and to share with us the high point of the Easter holiday. It certainly was not the same for us. We missed them and truly hope they will be with us next year. The celebration will never be the same without our sisters and brothers in the faith.
Lessons to learn. The various authorities responsible for this year’s excessive security measures have many lessons to learn.
Let the pilgrims back in the Old City on Holy Saturday. Rather than 1,500 police officers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, let the pilgrims who come from near and far return to pray and witness the mystery of the Resurrection.
Instead of empty space in the church that marks the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, let it fill up to capacity again. Instead of an empty courtyard and roof, let the thousands of local Christians welcome us there again.
Facilitate their access, do not hinder it. Remove roadblocks and checkpoints and remember: Thousands upon thousands of local Christians and pilgrims have celebrated Holy Week in the Old City for centuries and we have always managed.
I fully understand concerns about crowd control, public safety and maintaining law and order, but there are other ways to do the job without infringing on the rights of Christians and, more important, treating us with dignity. After all, we come to pray.
Final thoughts. Did I feel renewed as a Christian this year, despite all the difficulties, and prepared to face the challenges I confront as an Arab Christian in the Holy Land on a daily basis? You bet I did. Otherwise, I would not be a true Christian. My only hope is that all the others did as well.
Finally, I look forward to the day when my youngest son, Michael, grows strong enough to carry the banner, and I can pass onto him the honor of carrying it on Holy Saturday. My father passed the honor onto me, and I have already passed it onto my eldest son, Rami. When the days come that I no longer carry the banner, but my sons do so in my place, I will know I have done what I could to keep the tradition and faith alive. Maybe peace will have prevailed in the Holy Land and the celebration will return to how it should be — free.
Sami El-Yousef, a native of Jerusalem, is CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel.