JERUSALEM – The flame poured forth from the tomb, lighting up the cavernous church as fire passed from candle to candle held by thousands of Christian pilgrims convinced they were witnessing a miracle.
Orthodox Christians packed into Jerusalem’s centuries-old Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spilled out into the surrounding cobblestone alleys in anticipation of the annual «Holy Fire» ceremony on the eve of Easter Sunday.
Believers hold that the fire is sent from the heavens to ignite candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch in an annual rite symbolising Jesus’s resurrection that dates back many hundreds of years.
Minor scuffles broke out as Israeli police struggled to contain the crowds as they made their way through the Old City and packed into the church that Christians believe stands on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
The ceremony began with a group of a few dozen local Arab Christians who pumped up the crowds by beating drums and chanting in honour of Jesus and Mary.
Then the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilos III, made his grand entry at the head of a procession of monks, chanters, dignitaries and red and gold banners bearing icon-like images.
After circling the ornate tomb in the heart of the church three times amid chants of «Axios» («Oh, great one») the patriarch entered the shrine on Jesus’s traditional burial site and then emerged with several lit candles.
The flames were passed throughout the crowd, casting a flickering orange glow on the grey walls and towering stone columns and filling the air with smoke as police armed with fire extinguishers stood by nervously.
«It’s a miracle. It comes from the sky, down into the tomb and then lights the candles in the hands of the patriarch,» said George Papadopoulos, one of the black-cloaked chanters in the procession.
A few metres (yards) away, Kostas Kotulis, a 24-year-old pilgrim from Athens, passed his hand back and forth over a bolt of lit candles.
«It’s a miracle, and only the Greek patriarch can do it,» he said. «I touch the fire and I don’t get burned.»
In one corner of the cathedral a woman swept a candle over a disabled boy in order to bless him. A short way away a young woman ran a candle up and down the legs of another woman and even beneath her skirt.
The annual tradition dates back to at least the fourth century AD, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built.
Greek Orthodox lore holds that at least three times during the Middle Ages other Christian denominations tried — and failed — to receive the Holy Fire.
The church, Christianity’s holiest site, is shared uneasily by six denominations, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.
Past ceremonies have been marred by violence, with fist fights breaking out among monks from the different denominations over perceived changes to a status quo hammered out over several centuries.
Although this year’s ceremony passed off peacefully, a few people fainted after standing for hours in the tightly packed space, and some pilgrims said the chaotic nature of the gathering took away from their spiritual experience.
«I came here because I believe in it, but I don’t like that the people go crazy,» said Ioanna Buciv from Romania, as the pilgrims streamed out of the church to the sound of bells echoing across the city rooftops.
«They were pushing and shouting… You come here for something spiritual but you don’t feel at peace.»