Some significant news out of Jerusalem today, from the Associated Press:
Palestinian Christians are awaiting a High Court of Justice ruling on a petition asking the state and the Israel Police to drop the heavy movement and security restrictions that have prevented worshipers from accessing holy sites in East Jerusalem on Holy Saturday during the past several years. Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter, falls this year on 19 April.
The petition, filed in February by several East Jerusalem residents, argues that police roadblocks and barricades in and around the Old City on that day deter worshipers from even attempting to access the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites for Holy Saturday celebrations. The petitioners have also asked that armed security personnel not be allowed to enter the church. The heads of the five Eastern Orthodox churches and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land also joined the petition.
Holy Saturday, also called the Saturday of Light by some of the eastern churches, is marked in East Jerusalem with a fire ceremony that symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. The custom for the past several hundred years is that the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the holy sepulcher with an extinguished torch and prays. The tradition is that at 2 P.M., the torch lights up on its own, and its fire is passed on to the torches of other denominations and to the candles carried by thousands of believers waiting in the church and outside it.
According to the petitioners, between 1967 and 2005 Israel respected the Holy Saturday tradition and its character as a mass event. But in 2006, in a step that was never explained, the police started to erect barriers and screen worshipers before allowing them to enter. The petitioners’ attorney, Assad Masawi, said that in 2010, Palestinian Christian leaders began a dialogue with the authorities that resulted in somewhat improved access in 2011 and 2012. But in 2013 the situation deteriorated again, with reports of police roughing up worshipers and clergymen en route to the celebrations and refusing to allow access to various delegations whose visits had been coordinated in advance.
This is an issue CNEWA has been following for some time. In 2010, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, Sami el-Yousef, described the bittersweet atmosphere in Jerusalem during Holy Week:
For the past few years, Israeli authorities have closed the Old City and the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Holy Week, preventing local Christian and pilgrims from attending the Holy Fire celebration.
My 88-year-old father remembers when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem. During Holy Week, fleets of buses packed with pilgrims from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq would park along the road to Jericho. The crowds of pilgrims would walk to the celebration in the Old City. Their numbers far exceeded today’s turnout at Easter time, yet the Old City never closed its gates and the streets inside were never blocked. Access was open to all. A couple of years ago, Israeli authorities attempted to impose a permit system limiting the number of people who could attend the Holy Fire celebration. Incensed, local Christians demanded the government respect the church’s centuries-old Status Quo, which prohibits any restrictions on the faithful visiting the church. After all, pilgrims naturally want to get as close as possible to Christianity’s birthplace, especially during Holy Week.
This year, despite outcry from church leaders, members of civil society and the Christian community at large, Israeli authorities made it next to impossible to enter the Old City on Holy Saturday. In the early morning hours, police set up roadblocks at all the Old City’s gates and dozens of manned checkpoints along the streets and alleyways leading to the church. Authorities cooperated with church leaders only to the extent of allowing a limited number of local Christians access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, provided that police escort them. Israeli authorities also detained a small group of locals at Saint Jacob’s Orthodox Church from early morning until just 15 minutes before the Holy Fire celebration began.
Since I live in the Old City, it was very strange to be escorted by Israeli police officers to my church. I felt ashamed to have capitulated to such treatment, but regretfully that was the only way to get to my destination. It was even stranger to witness St. Jacob’s Church — my parish — transformed into a holding cell, a detention center if you will, for hours.
Read more about Christian High Holy Days in the May 2010 issue of ONE.