Amid Israeli restrictions, Holy Fire to be broadcast in Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — A coalition of churches and organizations in Jerusalem and Bethlehem have announced that the Holy Saturday festivities in Jerusalem will be televised to worshipers inside the West Bank, allowing those prevented from attending by Israeli restrictions to take part as well.
The Holy Saturday service in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre — an Orthodox ritual that is believed to involve the miraculous lighting of a fire at the tomb of Jesus Christ, and is followed by the fire’s spread across Palestine and the world — will be broadcast on special screens in both Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
The Bethlehem Peace Center said in a statement that the screenings were a coordinated effort by the the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, the municipality of Bethlehem, the Bethlehem Peace Center, and the Beit Jala Greek Orthodox Parish of the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
“The Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, working in the Holy Land for the well-being of mind, spirit and body, hopes that this event will be the first of an annual Holy Week tradition to strengthen the sacred and ever-lasting bond of Christian unity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” the statement read.
One screen will be erected at the Peace Center in Manger Square in Bethlehem and another in the courtyard of the Virgin Mary Church in nearby Beit Jala.
Israel distributes a limited number of permits to allow Palestinian Christians to attend religious festivals in Jerusalem, but the screenings will allow the thousands who were restricted from going to take part in the festival, which is known in Arabic at “Saturday of Fire.”
The screenings will take place beginning at around noon and will last until the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos emerges from the Tomb of Christ with the lit holy fire, which usually happens around 2 or 2:30 PM.
After the Patriarch emerges from the tomb, the fire will be spread to worshipers in all directions. Marches from Jerusalem generally arrive at the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem about an hour after, and from there marches to the centers of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour take off with thousands of locals accompanying.
In the past, Palestinian Christian officials have decried Israeli restrictions on the community’s access to holy sites in Jerusalem.
About 50,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, 1,500 in Gaza, and 150,000 inside Israel.
Hundreds of thousands more live in diaspora or as refugees around the world. In 1948, about half of all Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land were driven from their homes as part of the wider expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in order to create the state of Israel.
Those that remain face widespread restrictions, similar to their Muslim Palestinian neighbors.
In a report published in 2012, the US State Department highlighted Israeli policies restricting freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
“Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,” the report said.
“The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany (al-Eizariya) and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”
East Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, was occupied by Israeli forces in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community.