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Easter’s Holy Fire ceremony held in empty Jerusalem church

A small group of Christian clerics celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday as the coronavirus pandemic prevented worshipers from taking part in the ancient ritual.

They entered the Edicule, a chamber built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after being crucified. They emerged with candles lit by a fire that the faithful view as a divine message. The source of the flame is a closely-guarded secret.

The clergymen, from different Orthodox denominations, then circled around inside the empty church, chanting prayers that echoed off the walls.

In previous years, the church would be packed with pilgrims, each holding candles and passing the light around until it illuminated the centuries-old walls. The ceremony, along with other events in the Holy Week leading up to Easter, was scaled back in line with a ban on public gatherings.

Israel has reported more than 13,000 coronavirus infections and 159 deaths.

Israel says it made special arrangements with church leaders to allow the holy flame to be carried abroad to other Orthodox communities. Because anyone entering Israel must go into quarantine, foreign dignitaries coming to pick up the flame will receive it in special containers on their planes and immediately return home.

Akiva Tor, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s department for world religions, said earlier this month that the arrangement had been discussed with local church leaders and coordinated with several foreign countries with large Orthodox populations, including Greece, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.

Tor said church officials have been understanding. “We have the same goal in mind, which is to enable the continuation of this… event while being respectful of the medical emergency which is taking place,” he said.

While Greek and Russian authorities arranged to pick the flame up from Israel, they will not distribute it. Cyprus won’t even pick it up, with the island nation’s Archbishop Chrysostomos saying there is “no need.”

And Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said: “Today, faith is not at risk but the faithful are.”

The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. Orthodox churches celebrate Easter this week.

Original: AP, TOI Staff