Palestinian Christians: Israeli Police Spoiling Easter Celebrations in Jerusalem

Israel's High Court is weighing a petition to prevent security forces from approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Eve.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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The Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday in 2011.
The Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday in 2011.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

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 April 19.

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.

An internal EU report on the situation in East Jerusalem, published on March 18, also cites the Easter restrictions and police aggressiveness in 2013, and stated that the presence of armed Israeli security personnel in the church was very disturbing.

The state’s response to the petition, which was submitted on Sunday, is that the High Court has no reason to intervene in reasonable police considerations. But Justice Noam Solberg decided that a panel of three judges should hear the petition this week.

The Israel Police responded by saying, “The police is preparing to secure the Saturday of Light event and to assure the security of the many participants, as is done for other events in which it enables all religions freedom of worship, subject to the law and maintenance of public order. As every year, there will be roadblocks around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and participants’ entry will be supervised, to prevent a disaster and maintain their safety.”

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