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Orthodox Christians greet 'new fire' of Easter in Jerusalem

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  • Orthodox Christians greet 'new fire' of Easter in Jerusalem

    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.