JERUSALEM – Thousands of Orthodox Christians flooded Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday for the annual lighting of the holy fire – a massive Easter event that mostly unfolded smoothly, although there were reports that Israeli police officers created barriers for some Palestinian Christians who were seeking to attend together with a group of high-ranking diplomats.
Robert Serry, the United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he and several other senior diplomats had joined with Palestinian Christians in a special procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is built on the hill where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried before rising from the dead.
But despite earlier assurances of unhindered access to the church for the Saturday of Light ceremonies, Serry said in a statement, Israeli police refused to allow the group entry, saying they had orders to that effect.
A precarious standoff ensued ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through, Serry said.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that if such an incident did occur, police would look into it. During the day, many delegations were escorted into the Old City, and the police coordinated and prepared ahead of time with no incidents occurring, he said.
Considering the thousands of people that visited today, the event passed quietly and respectfully, he added.
The special coordinator expressed dismay at the incident and called on all parties to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshipers of all faiths and refraining from provocations not least during religious holidays.
Restrictions of the kind Serry described are not unusual this time of year.
For the past eight or nine years, one of the annual rites of spring for Palestinian Christians is to complain about their access to the holy places during Easter Week – and for Israeli officials to deny they are doing anything wrong.
This year, it seems, is no different. But the Palestinian cause is gathering more support, and the issue is drawing more attention in anticipation of the pope’s visit here in May.
This month, the Israeli High Court of Justice agreed that Palestinians’ rights were being violated by police checkpoints and other restrictions that annually create obstacles to worship.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and head of the Catholic Church in Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, Fouad Twal, said that the number of Palestinians attending Palm Sunday processionals earlier this week was very low, and he blamed Israelis for the sparse turnout.
About 50,000 Catholic and Orthodox Christians live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and many need a permit to travel to Jerusalem in the days before Easter.
Restricting Palestinians’ access to Jerusalem during Holy Week, Twal said, is not fair, not just, not religious.