Pilgrims Mark Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem
By IAN DEITCH
.c The Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) - A sea of flames illuminated Christianity's holiest
shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as thousands of pilgrims
took part Saturday in the holy fire ceremony, a key event in the
Orthodox Easter rituals.
The event passed peacefully despite plans by protesters to block the
participation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Irineos I.
Demonstrators, who object to the Patriarch's alleged role in a
controversial land deal, were kept away by the hundreds of Israeli
police who set up barricades throughout the alleys leading to the
Jerusalem holy site.
The shrine, marking the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified
and buried, was filled with thousands of pilgrims. Hundreds more
At the start of the ceremony, church leaders descended into the
underground burial area. The faithful clutched their bundles of unlit
candles and torches while waiting in the darkened church for a flame
to emerge from the tomb.
Some Christians believe the flame appears spontaneously, as a message
from Jesus that he has not forgotten his followers.
When church leaders, including Irineos, emerged with a lighted torch,
a cheer arose, and the flames were passed around, illuminating the
church within seconds.
Tensions were high ahead of the ceremony.
The Greek Orthodox Church is in turmoil over a deal in which the
church reportedly leased prime property in disputed east Jerusalem to
The alleged land deal is politically explosive because Israel claims
all of Jerusalem, while Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the
capital of a future state. Jewish land purchases in east Jerusalem
are seen as bolstering Israel's claim to that section of the city.
In the past the ceremony has also been a flashpoint between different
Orthodox denominations, who have argued over protocol at the ceremony.
About a dozen Greek and Armenian clergymen briefly scuffled over who
would be first to emerge with the flames, but they were quickly
pulled apart by Israeli police stationed inside the church.
Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of
denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a
fragile network of agreements hammered out over the last millennia.
``Every year there is always tight security, but maybe this year it
is even tighter because of the land deal,'' said Matthew Doll, 30, a
pilgrim who waited outside the church.
Protesters had vowed to bar Irineos from the ceremony, but were kept
away by the police, said Dimitri Diliani, the head of a Palestinian
Christian coalition who have been spearheading the protests.
The reported deal has stirred anger among Palestinians who feel
betrayed by the church.
At a rare news conference last month, Irineos told reporters he was
unaware of the alleged transactions, and that he was not involved in
any deal which was reportedly signed by Nikos Papadimas, the church
financial officer who vanished three months ago.
Papadimas is wanted in Greece after Greek Orthodox Church officials
in Athens accused him of absconding with $800,000 in church funds.
His wife is wanted on separate charges of money laundering.
Separately, a European arrest warrant has been issued against
Papadimas, Greek officials said.
But as the flames emerged from the tomb, church bells pealed and
tensions melted away.
``This is one of the most beautiful and spiritual experience of my
life,'' said Jonathan Parish, 42, of Boston. ``I have dreamt of being
in the presence of the holy fire for a long time.''
04/30/05 17:51 EDT
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