Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Holy and unholy fire

Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives
According to Amos Harel and Nir Hazen in Monday morning’s edition of Haaretz the left-wing Israeli newspaper, Temple Mount in Jerusalem is ‘a flash point ready to ignite’.  Rising tensions in Jerusalem over recent weeks escalated even further on Easter Sunday morning as Pesach - the week long Jewish Passover - was coming to a close. Jewish extremists had been entering the Al Aqsa Mosque compound and eight Jewish activists were arrested en route to the Temple Mount with a goat, thought to be intended for a sacrifice. Two police officers were injured during clashes in which 24 Palestinians were arrested.
Riot policeman 
This year was reportedly set to be extra tense in this Holy City as unusually both the Orthodox and Western Easters coincided with Pesach. For hundreds of years the Christian Quarter, and in particular the plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has thronged with worshippers but for five years the Israeli police have been restricting access for local Christians and international pilgrims to the Old City, reportedly for security reasons, leaving it empty.  Yusef Daher, head of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, showed us an old picture of the thronging crowds in front of the Holy Sepulchre. ’It used to be full of pilgrims,’ he said, ‘but now there are only army and police officers.’
A police barrier to 'control the crowds'
Easter actually passed relatively peacefully this year.  There was a Palm Sunday procession down from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, various Good Friday processions along the Via Dolorosa, following the Stations of the Cross and the dramatic Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Saturday.  This is the most important part of Easter for the Palestinian Christians, who believe that Holy Fire emanated from the tomb as the stone was rolled away at 2pm on the day after the crucifixion.  Each year, the eagerly awaited fire is passed on to the faithful on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre and from there it travels out to the villages and on to other Orthodox communities as far away as Romania  and Russia.

A patient Georgian priest waiting at Jaffa Gate with some of his flock
As Ecumenical Accopaniers, we were monitoring access to all parts of the Easter celebrations for local Christians.  Standing at Jaffa Gate in 30 plus degrees and no shade on Easter Saturday, we were standing with a multitude of Orthodox pilgrims waiting patiently to enter the Old City. The successful ones had been queuing from three o’clock in the morning before the police had put up a barrier at 6 am.  Even then, they were waiting on chairs inside the barrier but outside the gate before being allowed in to the Old City itself.  The unsuccessful were still waiting at 3pm with the promise that they would be allowed to go in at some point. 
More serious was the distinct lack of local Christians.  So few had managed even to get to Jerusalem.  Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church reported that many Christians from the West Bank had been unable to obtain their permits due to a ‘computer error’.  Many families received permits for only some members and chose to stay at home rather than spend Easter apart.  We learned that out of 3000 permit applications, the Catholics in Bethlehem received only 700. 12 out of 14 West Bank Scout Troops were refused entry. One EA colleague witnessed a small Boy Scout in tears at the Bethlehem checkpoint. He had been turned back and was prevented from marching in the procession with his band.
Restriction of access to worship is, quite simply, illegal under International Humanitarian Law.  Under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights …
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom … to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’
At approximately 2.15pm on Holy Saturday, the fire emerged from the Holy Sepulchre.  Candles, torches and lanterns were lit from it, first on the roof and then right around the now filling plaza.  By 4 o’clock it had been carried from the Old City to Qalandia and through the checkpoint into the West Bank City of Ramallah where the torches of waiting Christians were lit from it.
Some lucky pilgrims
Let us just hope and pray that it is the Holy Fire, the hope of the resurrection, that prevails rather than the smouldering discontent and sparks of conflict that hit the newspapers day after day in this deeply troubled place.
This post finishes with an exhortation from Bishop Munib Younan:
Our call as Arab and Middle East Christians is to be instruments of peace, ministers of reconciliation, defenders of human rights, and apostles of love. I invite you to join with your brothers and sisters in the Middle East as we proclaim the truth of Christ's peace in our hearts to the world. I ask you this Easter Sunday to pray for peace based on justice with reconciliation based on forgiveness in Palestine and Israel. I implore you for the sake of the Gospel to pray that politicians will find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria. I beg you to pray for Arab and Middle East Christians in this region that they may be filled with the power of hope in the Resurrection. I ask you to not forget us nor cease accompanying us in our journey, for our mission is yours and yours is ours. Our mission continues to be one of a prophetic Church, implanting the power of Resurrection Peace in the hearts of all peoples. This is the reason that even in the midst of our doubts and suspicions we hear His gentle voice saying, "Peace be with you." And all of us with one voice will astonishingly reply, "My Lord and my God!" With this hope of the Resurrection, I send to you the Easter greetings of Jerusalem. Al-Masih Qam – Hakkan Qam! Christ has risen! He is risen indeed!

I work for Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of QPSW or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for Middle East for permission. Thank you.

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