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Police prevented hundreds of Armenian worshipers from taking part in a sacred pre-Easter ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday. Armenian church officials said the police behaved rudely to church members and senior clergy and arrested four Armenians near the Old City police station, releasing them only after the Armenians stopped the festive procession to the church in protest.

Armenian Archbishop Nourhan Manougian told Haaretz that the police only allowed 400 of 700 Armenian pilgrims to enter the church for the Ceremony of the Holy Fire, despite the fact that all had entry permits, as required by police, he said. "Israel always declares that it allows free access to the holy places but in fact the police acted like a despot to the pilgrims. There were some who had come especially for the ceremony from the U.S., from Canada and from Australia who were not allowed in."

During the ceremony, a flame, believed by some faithful to be miraculously ignited, illuminated thousands of worshipers' torches and candles at the church, as tense hours of waiting and shoving culminated in the celebration of the rite.

Believers see the passage of the flame among worshipers as connecting many of the 200 million Orthodox Christians worldwide to their spiritual roots.

The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. The precise details of the flame's source are a closely guarded secret, but some believe it appears spontaneously from the burial area, as a message from Jesus on the eve of the Orthodox Easter that he has not forgotten his followers.

Some 3,000 police were involved in security at the ceremony, which was attended by approximately 15,000 pilgrims.

Manougian met on the eve of the ceremony with the commander of the Jerusalem district of the police, Major General Ilan Franko, and asked him to treat the pilgrims politely. However he said Franko "spoke to me as if I were a student of his, and hinted all the time that if we did not abide by the agreements..."

The Jerusalem police responded that officers had detained a number of intoxicated individuals who had joined the Armenian procession and were behaving wildly. They were released when they calmed down, police said.

With regard to complaints that Armenian worshipers were pushed, police said it was Armenian clergy who had pushed Russian pilgrims trying to join the procession, and that officers had intervened only to separate the two sides.

Police also said Franko had conducted talks in recent weeks with all sides involved in the ceremony, and had reached an agreement acceptable to all. "The meeting ended with embraces and kisses, and so Archbishop Manougian's claims are surprising," police said.