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Each year during Holy week, Christians around the world anticipate what come call the “Old Faithful” of miracles.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — built over the traditional site that encompasses Jesus’ tomb and the place of his crucifixion — the archbishop enters the tomb after being inspected by Jewish authorities to ensure he has no means of lighting a fire. After saying prayers and worshiping the risen Christ, the candles miraculously alight.
The ceremony has been performed for centuries; records of the event reach back to the ninth century. Across more than a millennium of Muslim, European, or Jewish rule, the purported miracle has been an inspiration to thousands of pilgrims who flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to spread the fire into the rest of Jerusalem.
Once it is brought out of the tomb, the light is spread from person to person, candle by candle, and out into the world. It is a beautiful sight as worshipers from different Christian traditions line the darkened streets holding candles and spreading the light of Jesus Christ. The ceremony reflects the peaceful spread of Jesus’ message from one person to another. Called “Holy Fire Saturday,” this event also prefigures the Easter celebration the following day in which Christians celebrate Jesus’ triumph over death itself.
While Christians mark Christmas as the “silent night” in which God himself took on human flesh, on Easter we proclaim, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” in the words of the old hymn. It’s a miracle not of light, but of life defeating death.
But for the past several years in Jerusalem, the mood on Holy Saturday and the rest of Holy Week has not been one of rejoicing and triumph but instead one of trial and tribulation.
Because of travel restrictions in past years, the vast majority of Christians living in the West Bank have been stopped at checkpoints and prevented from attending one of the most important religious services of the year. Israeli authorities require permits for entering Jerusalem. Local Christians estimate that only 2,000 — 3,000 permits are provided, despite the overwhelming desire among the 50,000 Palestinian Christians to travel from the West Bank and Gaza for the Easter week celebrations in Jerusalem.
Those who make it across checkpoints and into Israel are still barricaded by numerous walls and other security obstructions. As a result, even many who have permits are unable to make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 2010, a Palestinian colleague of mine at World Vision, who had warm memories as a child of the Holy Fire service, was able to return to the Holy Sepulchre. She described the scene for those able to gain entrance to the church: “The crowd, striving to stay joyful, could still feel the change of what Easter had now become and the dark cloud of checkpoints, police forces, and denial of entry that had obscured the joy of this holiday.”
While the ancient Christian communities around Jerusalem await the miracle of the Holy Fire this week, I pray for another miracle — one that would give full religious freedom to the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza. Holy Week has long been a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Christians have worshiped there since the birth of the church, and these sites are a core aspect of the devotion of Palestinian believers.
The restrictions on travel for worship are not only in force during Holy Week, but also for routine Sunday services, weddings, funerals, and baptisms throughout the year. Certainly, Israel can take care of its own security concerns while accommodating peaceful Palestinian Christian worship.
In a recent letter by 80 Palestinian Christian leaders, including the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians spoke out against the lack of religious freedom inside Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. They complained of being forced to endure an “assault on our natural and basic right to worship.”
Along with the rest of the world’s Christians, I celebrate a God who brings light from darkness and life from death. And I pray for another miracle this Holy Fire Saturday, one that would remove all restrictions on the freedom to worship for the Christians of the Holy Land.
(Richard Stearns is the U.S. president of World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian agency.)
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