Orthodox Christians greet 'new fire' of Easter in Jerusalem

Agence France Presse -- English
April 22, 2006 Saturday 3:59 PM GMT

JERUSALEM, April 22 2006 -- Thousands of Orthodox Christians converged
on Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher Saturday for the lighting
of the "new fire," on the eve of Orthodox Easter.

Only minor incidents were reported in connection with the centuries-old
ceremony that is often the source of brawling and fisticuffs, and
which has even led to stampedes and deaths.

Jerusalem's Old City, with its Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian
quarters, was blocked off to vehicular traffic, and some pilgrims
fainted after being held up at Israeli security checkpoints leading
to the church.

Last year, a dozen Greek and Armenian Orthodox clergymen briefly
scuffled over who would be first to emerge from the tomb of Christ
with the ceremonial flames, said to be sent by Jesus from heaven.

"To take part in this ceremony is to see God in person and take a
spiritual bath," said Elizabeth, an Australian in her 30s dressed
head-to-toe in black.

The church contains within its precincts what is believed to be
Calvary, the site where Jesus Christ was crucified and, only a few
meters (yards) away, the tomb where he was buried and from which he
rose again to life.

Custody of the church is shared by the Greeks and Armenians as well
as Roman Catholics, all of whom jealously guard their responsibilities
under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the centuries.

Most of the people making their way to the church on Saturday, along
with local residents, were Russians, Greeks, Armenians and Romanians,
an AFP journalist said.

This year, the new Greek Orthodox of Jerusalem, Theophilos III,
exercised his prerogative to light the first candle from the holy
fire, inside the small marble-clad structure built over the site of
Christ's tomb, or sepulcher, inside the church.

"This ceremony is a magical moment, a miracle, in the tomb, the fire
lights itself," said Russian Orthodox Basil Yakimov, 52.

"You can touch the flame when it comes out of the tomb, you will not
be burnt, it comes from heaven and you have to welcome it with faith,"
said 40-year-old Frenchman Pierre.

The holy fire allegedly appears each year. It is described as a blue,
shiny light emanating from the tomb after some prayers have been said
by the patriarch.

>>From there, the candle is brought out to be greeted with joy by
the assembled throng, and its fire passed from candle to candle among
the faithful.

"May God bless you Virgin Mary," cried dozens of young Arab Christians
as they ran out of the church bearing lit candles.

"It's like being in a football stadium, we're used to more
contemplation in churches," said Henri, a Roman Catholic Frenchman
living in Tel-Aviv.

Theophilos left the sepulcher to take the fire to the Patriarchate,
accompanied by a delegation of Greek officials, and then on to to
Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus' birth, only a few kilometers
(miles) south of Jerusalem.

A specially arranged flight will then take the fire to Athens, from
where it is taken by road, air and sea to illuminated every church in
Greece and some further afield to cries of "He is risen" at midnight.

In Orthodox tradition, and also widely practiced in many Western rites,
the vigil held on the night before Easter begins with a darkened
church that is illuminated by the new fire, which symbolizes the
"light of Christ" manifest in the Resurrection.