Christian pilgrims celebrate Good Friday in Jerusalem

Sun., April 11, 2004 Nisan 20, 5764 Israel Time: 01:45 (GMT+3)

Christian pilgrims celebrate Good Friday in Jerusalem

By Amiram Barkat

A roar of joy burst from the throats of some 11,000 Christians crowding the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Friday afternoon, as out of the darkness the
light of two candles suddenly flickered. They were held by the Greek
Orthodox patriarch and the Armenian bishop.

This was the culmination of the Good Friday procession, in which pilgrims
from every strain of Christianity crowded the streets of Jerusalem’s Old
City, retracing Jesus’ path to crucifixion.

Groups from Russia, Poland, Greece, the Philippines and Ethiopia followed
the stations of the cross along the cobblestoned Via Dolorosa, or Way of
Sorrows, the route Christ took from his trial to his burial, according to

Faith has it that the fire erupting once a year from the sepulcher lights
the candles. But this year another mystery was added. Was it the Greek
patriarch who brought the fire, as the Greeks said, or did the Armenian
bishop accompany him, as the Armenians assert.

The fire-lighting ceremony has been held annually for more than 1,000 years.
For the Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and Assyrians, the ceremony symbolizes
the beginning of Christ’s resurrection. Only a representative of the Greek
Orthodox community and a representative of the Armenian community are
allowed into the holy chapel at the sepulcher’s entrance. A few minutes
later they appear at the windows with candles in their hand. Within seconds
the fire lights thousands of candles held by worshipers in the church.

For the past two years, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian leaders have been
fighting about the access right to the source of fire. This year they asked
the Israeli government to settle the issue. But both previous and present
interior ministers kept putting off their decision.

This year, the Jerusalem police told both sides the ceremony would be held
in the same format as last year. “We told them we would not allow any
riots,” police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. “If they don’t reach an
agreement, there will be no ceremony, or only a very small one.”

Finally, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos entered the sepulcher, with
Armenian Bishop Vicken close on his heels. An armed police force kept watch
inside the church to prevent disturbances.

Outside the church, local shopkeepers – some of whom were selling bootlegged
DVDs of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – and police said this
year’s Good Friday turnout was larger than any since the outbreak of the
intifada in September 2000.

Worshipers sang and carried icons, candles, flowers and crosses as they
walked along the alleys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

One group of about a dozen people, each wearing a crown of thorns, carried a
large cross. Another group reenacted the Passion with actors playing the
parts of Jesus, Roman soldiers and the disciples.

The procession often ground to a halt as the throng tried to turn sharp
corners or pass through narrow passages. Some pilgrims tearfully kissed the
pillars of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as they waited to get in. Once
inside, many wiped prayer cloths across the Stone of Unction, where Christ
was anointed for burial.