ORTHODOX INSTITUTIONS AND INDIVIDUALS have called for unimpeded access to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for Holy Fire Saturday (23 April) and Easter (24 April). The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has rejected restrictions announced by Israeli police.

In a statement released on 20 April, Orthodox institutions and individuals submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court against the police decision to restrict access by Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Fire Saturday and Easter.

“The proposal by the police was rejected because it insisted on keeping the restrictions and checkpoints”, the statement reads. “The plaintiffs refused any compromise on the rights of Christians to exercise religious rituals and traditions, and insisted on unimpeded access to places of worship with no checkpoints or permits.”

The plaintiffs refused also the proposal to restrict access through the checkpoints to 4,000 Christians who can reach the Holy Sepulchre and vicinity, while the police would maintain the right to close the checkpoints at any time.

“The plaintiffs insisted also on the right to carry out the traditional celebrations in the Christian Quarter”, the statement continues, concluding: “We are calling upon the faithful to participate in the Holy Fire Saturday celebrations; and to stand up for our rights, identity, and presence.”

In a 21 April letter to Israeli police, the Jerusalem Patriarchate rejected Israeli-imposed restrictions on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre related to the number of celebrants on Holy Fire Saturday allowed inside the church, its courtyard, its surroundings, its roof, or the entrances leading to it.

The letter refutes the police’s arguments for placing restrictions on the number of worshippers which limit them to 1,700. The Jerusalem Patriarchate rejected this offer on grounds that it does not accept any infringement to the right to freedom of worship.

The letter stated that the number of worshippers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre annually on Holy Fire Saturday ranges between 10,000 and 11,000 people, which is the normal capacity of the church. The letter argued that over the past years there has not been any incident that endangered the safety of worshippers, so the police argument that restricting the number of worshippers due to “public safety” concerns lacks any logical basis.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate asked in its letter: “If the pretext of public safety is a reason for reducing the number of worshipers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then why are there restrictions on in its courtyard, rooftop, adjacent neighbourhoods, or even the entrances to the Old City?”

Archbishop Aristarchus, Secretary General of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who signed the letter, made it clear that the Jerusalem Patriarchate will proceed as usual with its normal procedures related to Holy Fire Saturday and that it will issue invitations as it deems appropriate and without any limits.

The letter also demands that police not put up barriers in the alleys of the Old City, as they impede the access of worshippers and priests from different monasteries to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Furthermore the Patriarchate demanded police facilitation to freely transfer the Holy Light to the airport in order to transport it to different parts of the world, a custom that has been observed for more than 1,000 years.

* More information on the letter to the Israeli police from the Jerusalem Patriarchate here.

* Source: World Council of Churches