Palestinian officials expressed outrage at strict police measures in the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday, claiming that police obstructed Christians attempting to access the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ceremony.
Checkpoints were set up throughout the Old City, with security forces checking identity cards as part of coronavirus measures, according to the Palestinian WAFA news agency, which claimed that merchants in the area complained about a lack of sales and tourism caused by Israeli measures.
WAFA also claimed that police physically assaulted worshippers and obstructed access to the church, without detailing specific incidents.
Holy Fire celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem (Credit: Israel Police)
Two young people were arrested while on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the Palestinian Safa news agency reporting that they had raised Palestinian flags, which is illegal in Jerusalem.
One member of the Christian community told Safa that “hundreds of people” were prevented from reaching the church and were beaten and pushed, claiming that it appeared “almost empty.”
According to Safa, only 2,000 worshippers were allowed into the church, adding that 100 of them began chanting nationalistic slogans and were subsequently driven out by police.
Despite the claims of heavy restrictions, photos from the scene showed crowds of worshippers in and near the church on Saturday, with police mixed among the revelers.
Israel Police stated on Saturday that they prepared for the celebration by deploying hundreds of police in the area to secure the event and maintain the safety of the thousands of participants.
“This is a complex and challenging task,” the Police said. “The policemen and Border Police officers are determined and motivated to carry out their mission while showing sensitivity to the needs of the many visitors and many believers who frequent the Old City area.
“The increased readiness of the police continues with an emphasis on the Old City and the continuation of planned events, in order to allow freedom of worship for all religions and the observance of routine, all while maintaining public peace and security,” it said.
The Palestinian Authority Presidency condemned the police measures, stating that they “hindered the arrival of thousands of believers to perform their religious rituals in peace and security.”
“The presidency stressed that the checkpoints, provocation of Christian worshipers, and turning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its surroundings into a military outpost will not intimidate the Palestinian people nor prevent them from preserving their authentic Palestinian identity and from exercising their religious freedom guaranteed by international laws and charters,” WAFA reported.
The Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriate Affairs also condemned the Israeli measures, saying that “The Kingdom condemns and rejects the Israeli police obstructing the arrival of Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to participate in the… celebrations, attacking a number of them, and placing barriers in the vicinity of the church.”
The ministry called on Israeli authorities to not impede the practice of religious rites and to “stop harassing” Jerusalem residents, whether those wishing to reach Al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount or churches in the city. The complaints come after heavy clashes between east Jerusalem residents and police in recent weeks, with almost nightly riots reported at the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, in which a number of police and rioters were injured. Several Jewish drivers who passed by the site were assaulted, with a number of vehicles damaged by objects thrown by rioters. Far-right Jewish protesters marched to the scene on one of the nights to confront the rioters, with police working to keep the two sides separate amid fears of increased violence. Amid the unrest, the activists attacked Arabs in a number of incidents throughout the city. Barricades that had been placed at the Damascus Gate to prevent gatherings were removed after the riots in an attempt to lower tensions.
Orthodox Christians flocked to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony, gathering in far greater numbers than last year because coronavirus restrictions have eased.
The Holy Fire ceremony, symbolizing Jesus’s resurrection, is one of the most colorful spectacles of the Orthodox Easter season, usually attended by many pilgrims.