- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

JERUSALEM - Worshippers filled Christianity’s most revered church yesterday, lighting rows of candles, dripping hot wax on their faces and dancing in celebration of the Orthodox Easter “holy fire” ritual.

Orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands, and the fire appears spontaneously from his tomb on the eve of Easter as a message that He has not forgotten his followers.

The fire ceremony started with the entrance of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilos III, dressed in robes and a large yellow-and-white cowl, and carrying a large staff.

He descended into the church’s underground tomb to bring out the flame. When he emerged, church bells pealed and flames were passed around to the thousands of faithful, filling the church with light and smoke.

Worshippers quickly lit their candles many of them carrying bunches of long tapers tied up with string and decorated with pictures of Jerusalem.

Arab Christian women wailed and others beat out drum rhythms. One youth bounced up and down on another’s shoulders, waving a candle.

Other celebrants dripped candle wax onto their faces.

The “holy fire” is taken aboard special flights to Athens and other cities connecting many of the 200 million Orthodox Christians worldwide to their spiritual roots.

Outside the church in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police helped worshippers light

candles from the flame many of the faithful stretching their arms across barricades erected to keep back the surging crowd.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims packed into the walled Old City for Easter, and many said they had been unable to get past the barriers to reach the ceremony.

A local Greek Orthodox woman, Reem Carmi, 27, said she and two friends shouldered their way through police lines and into the crush of candle-waving celebrants.

“This is a beautiful occasion for me,” she said. “Christianity is based on light and resurrection.”

Although police could not give an exact figure, the number of Easter pilgrims in Jerusalem was higher than normal because the calendars of five major Christian faiths coincided this year, bringing Orthodox and Western Christians to the cramped Old City at the same time. This happens only once every four years.

The “holy fire” ritual dates back at least 1,200 years.

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