JERUSALEM (AP) - Thousands of Orthodox faithful, carrying torches and bundles of candles signifying the 33 years of Jesus’ life, packed into Christianity’s holiest shrine on Saturday to celebrate Easter Week’s holy fire ritual.
Christians traditionally believe Jesus was crucified and buried at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands.
The holy fire ritual, celebrated the day before the Orthodox Easter, honors the belief that a holy fire appears spontaneously from Jesus’ tomb as a message that he has not forgotten his followers.
About 10,000 worshippers attended the afternoon ceremony, some arriving before dawn to make sure they would be able to enter the cavernous, heavily secured church. Believers who arrived too late celebrated outside in the church’s cobblestone courtyard, some of them beating on hand drums.
Inside the darkened church, worshippers clutching bundles of unlit tapers and torches waited expectantly as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III, descended with a group of Greek, Armenian and other Orthodox clergy into Jesus’ traditional tomb. After the flame appeared there, Theofilos passed it from the tomb to believers inside the church’s main hall, who cheered and wept, and rushed to light their own candles and torches.
Within seconds, the cavernous church was filled with a sudden burst of illumination and smoke. Many of the pilgrims held the light to their faces to bask in the holy glow.
Ukrainian, Russian and Greek believers were most heavily represented at the church.
“I feel very good and I feel the light, the light inside on our soul, the light,” said Georgios Papageorgiou, a Greek monk.
Tom Vomastik, an American tourist from Milwaukee, Wis., said he found the ceremony moving.
“To be here for the procession of the holy fire, which is probably the biggest event of the year, is pretty exciting.”
Light from the holy fire was taken afterward to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, where tradition holds Jesus was born, and aboard special flights to Athens and other cities.
The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. The precise details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.
Security was tight at the church, with thousands of police officers on hand. In the past, the ceremony has been the scene of scuffles between adherents of the various Orthodox denominations that control different sections of the church.
Tempers flared before the ceremony began, after pilgrims inside the crowded church found themselves on the turf of other groups. Police separated the various denominations in an effort to avoid any blows over rights of worship inside the church.
Barricades inside the shrine separated the different Orthodox groups.
Greek Orthodox, Armenians and other Eastern rite Christians mark Easter on Sunday, a week after observances by other Christian denominations, because they follow a different calendar.