housands of Christians were prevented from going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem on Saturday to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony because of Israeli police checkpoints in the Old City.
Photos and videos from the scene and the Old City showed a large number of police and barriers deployed at the church entrances. Officers were seen pushing and hitting women and clerics, keeping them away from the building.
The scouts’ band performed in the streets leading to the church with pilgrims watching in delight.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled there were no restrictions on the number of visitors to the church, but Israeli police forces decided the rules on the ground and ignored the court’s decision.
A Christian woman from East Jerusalem told Arab News that the number of police barriers had increased this year in response to the court’s decision. “Every year we suffer from these racist measures. We want to celebrate this day freely and without restrictions, and we want a solution,” she said.
Police asked church authorities to reduce the number of worshippers and said it would only allow 1,000 people to enter the church on Holy Saturday and 500 people to enter the Old City and reach the patriarchate squares and the church roof.
The church moved the court, emphasizing its right to worship and demanding to access the church without restrictions or conditions.
Police tried to bargain with the church by offering to allow 4,000 worshippers in, but the petitioners rejected the offer and demanded free and unconditional entry for any number of worshippers.
“We consider that the Israeli authorities limiting the number of worshippers and celebrants in the church today constitutes a challenge to the historical and legal situation of the church for decades, and the Israeli police today did not allow our people to enter the church as it should, and there was harassment against them,” Bishop Monib Younan, the former head of the Lutheran Union in Jerusalem, told Arab News.
“Holy Saturday is the only day for Christians to celebrate in Jerusalem, and Christian pilgrims came from Egypt, but we were not allowed to enter to celebrate.
“Unfortunately, the matter is related to what is happening in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and Bab Al-Khalil. We condemn this restriction and affirm that the existing legal and historical status of the church must be adhered to under the auspices of King Abdullah II of Jordan,” he said.
The monarch is the custodian of the holy places in Jerusalem.
Israel says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy site last year left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there is no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.