Cheers and flames as Orthodox worshipers greet the ancient ceremony of the 'Holy Fire'

Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Saturday, May 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Bells and clamor, incense and flames. One of the most chaotic gatherings in the Christian calendar is the ancient ceremony of the “Holy Fire,” with worshipers thronging the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Saturday.

Cheers and prayers rang out as candles one by one were lit after reaching through a small opening into Jesus’ tomb. Soon, the dim chamber was lit by a constellation of handheld flames as part of the rite of Orthodox Easter week in Jerusalem. Worshipers believe the flame’s origin is a miracle.

One man waved his flame back and forth as if anointing his beard, smiling. Some young men holding crosses jumped up and down in the crowd and chanted.

“I am speechless, I don’t even know how to explain it,” said one worshiper, Angela Manoug. “It is my first time that I have seen the holy light, and I am very blessed by God to have seen it.”

The ceremony for believers in Greek Orthodox communities has been held for more than a millennium. The church is built on the site where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

There is not enough space for all who would like to attend, which has caused friction with Israeli authorities, and stampedes have occurred in the past. But Saturday’s event was joyous, if jostling, and reflective amid the Israel-Hamas war not far away.

“This year is very sad, but I wish with the light of the holy fire from Jerusalem will give peace all around the world, thank you and happy Easter, Jesus is risen,” said a worshiper, Issa Assasieh, with flames in both fists.

Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of the city’s eastern half, in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.