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May 1, 2021 10:08 am
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Crowds Gather for Holy Fire Ceremony at Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

Orthodox Christian worshipers attend the Holy Fire ceremony amid eased coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 1, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Orthodox Christians flocked to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony, gathering in far greater numbers than last year because coronavirus restrictions have eased.

This season’s religious holidays in the Holy Land, home to religious sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, have been overshadowed by tragedy, as Israel mourns the death of 45 Jewish worshipers killed in a stampede overnight between Thursday and Friday at a religious festival in the north of the country. Children were among the casualties.

“I listened to the radio, when the parents were talking, I was crying because I have a small son. I cried for the kids,” said Zaira Didmanidze, 40, one of the 2,500 people who attended the Holy Fire ceremony.

The ceremony, symbolizing Jesus’s resurrection, is one of the most colorful spectacles of the Orthodox Easter season, usually attended by many pilgrims.

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With Jerusalem under lockdown last year’s Holy Fire ceremony was held in the near-empty church that is revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

“Last year it was a sad year,” said Rosaline Manees, a pilgrim from Jaffa. “This year is better, though not like other years as pilgrims from all over the world are not visiting the country. Today it is only us who live in the country. But, sure, better than last year.”

Israel’s swift vaccination drive has largely beaten back the pandemic in the past few months, allowing for restrictions on gatherings to be greatly eased as officials plan a resumption of international tourism in the coming months.

The Holy Fire ceremony typically draws tens of thousands of worshipers to an imposing grey edicule in the Holy Sepulchre that is believed to contain the tomb where Jesus lay 2,000 years ago.

Sunbeams that pierce through a skylight in the church’s dome are believed by worshipers to ignite a flame deep inside the crypt, a mysterious act considered a Holy Saturday miracle each year before Orthodox Easter Sunday.

Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch then emerges from the crypt where Christians believe Jesus was buried, lights a candle with the Holy Fire and disperses it to the faithful.

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