PICS: Christians Celebrate Muted ‘Holy Fire’ Ceremony Amid Pandemic

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AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

JERUSALEM (AP) – A small group of Christian clerics celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday as the coronavirus pandemic prevented worshippers from taking part in the ancient and mysterious ritual.

They entered the Edicule, a chamber built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after being crucified. They emerged with candles lit by a mysterious fire that the faithful view as a divine message. The source of the fire is a closely-guarded secret.

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A priest walks outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 18th, 2020, while the church is closed due to a lockdown imposed to stem the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, before the arrival of the “Holy Fire” from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Photo by MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty Images)

The clergymen, from different Orthodox denominations, then circled around inside the empty church, chanting prayers that echoed off the walls.

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An Orthodox Christian priest prays at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 18th, 2020, while the church is closed due to a lockdown imposed to stem the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, before the arrival of the “Holy Fire” from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Photo by MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty Images)

In previous years, the church would be packed with pilgrims, each holding candles and passing the light around until it illuminated the centuries-old walls. The ceremony, along with other events in the Holy Week leading up to Easter, was scaled back in line with a ban on public gatherings.

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Armenian clergymen with face masks and gloves walk towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many Christians to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem’s old city after the traditional Holy Fire ceremony was called off amid coronavirus, Saturday, April 18th, 2020. A few clergymen on Saturday marked the Holy Fire ceremony as the coronavirus pandemic prevented thousands of Orthodox Christians from participating in one of their most ancient and mysterious rituals at the Jerusalem church marking the site of Jesus’ tomb. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel has reported more than 13,000 coronavirus infections and 158 deaths. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

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A man wearing a protective mask holds up candles lit from the Holy Fire in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, as very few Orthodox Christians gather in Jerusalem’s Old City to celebrate Easter due to the lockdown imposed by authorities in a bid to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, on April 18th, 2020. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel says it made special arrangements with church leaders to allow the holy flame to be carried abroad to other Orthodox communities. Because anyone entering Israel must go into quarantine, foreign dignitaries coming to pick up the flame will receive it on their planes and immediately return home.

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An Armenian priest wearing a protective mask and gloves passes on the Holy Fire lit in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, as very few Orthodox Christians gather in Jerusalem’s Old City to celebrate Easter due to the lockdown imposed by authorities in a bid to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, on April 18th, 2020. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years. Orthodox churches celebrate Easter this week.

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A priest wearing a protective mask looks on as very few Orthodox Christians gather in Jerusalem’s Old City to celebrate Easter due to the lockdown imposed by authorities in a bid to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, on April 18th, 2020. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

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