Miracle of Holy Fire site mapBegining of the sectionTJonathan Lis. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee // "Haaretz Service" (Israel), 29 Apr 2003.

Thousands of people worshipped peacefully at an Orthodox Easter ceremony Saturday in Christianity's holiest site after Israeli police brokered a last-minute deal between feuding church factions.

Police had told representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches to resolve a dispute over who leads the Holy Fire ceremony or they would bar attendance to all but a few hundred worshippers. At last year's ceremony, attended by 10,000 people, clergymen from the rival congregations exchanged blows.

Police eventually let 6,000 worshippers into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition says Jesus was crucified and then later buried. Hordes of enthusiastic faithful, clutching bundles of candles, crowded behind police barricades and inched their way past watchful Israeli police as they secured vantage points that would enable them to witness the miracle of the Holy Fire.

The ceremony draws thousands of Orthodox Christians and is held on the day before Orthodox Easter. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter last Sunday. The ancient basilica was darkened as church leaders descended into what is believed to be Jesus' tomb. The first flicker of fire from within the chamber - which religious leaders say spontaneously appears - provoked a roar from the festive crowd, which quickly lit their candles from the passing flame until the entire church was illuminated.

As the church bells pealed to signify that the miracle had taken place, the chanting, applauding crowds held the burning bundles aloft like torches, passing their hands through the holy flame and then over their bodies, as if to bathe themselves in the sacred fire. The ceremony is meant to assure the faithful that Jesus has not forgotten them and is sending a message of hope.

Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile agreement hammered out over the last millennia. Any perceived encroachment on one group's turf can lead to vicious feuds, sometimes lasting centuries.

During last year's ceremony, the Greek patriarch and Armenian clergyman designated to enter the tomb began to exchange blows following a dispute over who should exit the chamber first. This year's battle was over whether both should be allowed inside the tomb.

After a week of negotiations, Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy brokered an understanding in which both sides agreed to refrain from violence. Police were concerned that thousands of lit candles could present a danger to the public if the ceremony was held in a tense environment; the church has only one exit. Officials did not release other details of the accord.

Saturday's ceremony - guarded by hundreds of police officers armed with fire hoses - was more raucous then tense, as members of the rival congregations whistled and cheered like sports fans rooting for their respective teams. "Armenia," "Armenia," chanted dozens of young Armenian novices as their religious leaders marched by.

Attending this year's ceremony was a 120-person delegation from Russia that included Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhov and two special envoys sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Vladimir Yakunin, a delegation member and deputy minister. "We have all come here to pray for the peace of Jerusalem," he said.

The internal feuding made no difference to many of the faithful who came to Jerusalem for the spiritual experience. "I have no words to say what it was like," said Alecsandru Maria, who made the pilgrimage with five friends from the Romanian town of Arad. "It was fantastic, a miracle."

Minister without Portfolio Natan Sharansky held several meetings in recent days with the church leaders, police and government officials in an attempt to mediate an agreement between the two churches, to no avail.

Sharansky also expressed the fear that a clash between the churches' followers could have far-reaching religious and diplomatic repercussions.

Police originally planned to set up barricades near the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to prevent thousands of worshipers from entering, and allow just several hundred representatives of each of the Christian churches to participate in the ceremony.

Cited: Jonathan Lis. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee // "Haaretz Service" (Israel), 29 Apr 2003.

Miracle of Holy Fire site mapBegining of the sectionJonathan Lis. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee // "Haaretz Service" (Israel), 29 Apr 2003.