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Israeli police block pilgrims from accessing Holy Sepulchre church on Easter

Israel capped the number of worshippers allowed inside the church to just 1,800, with another 1,200 outside
Israeli security forces block the entrance in Jerusalem's old city that leads to the the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, on 15 April 2023 (AFP)

Israeli forces on Saturday restricted Christian worshippers from entering the Old City of Jerusalem to celebrate the Easter ceremony of the "Holy Fire" at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The police tightened restrictions at the gates of the Old City, setting up checkpoints around the area and metal barricades to close off the alleys leading to the Christian Quarters.

Clergy and worshippers, including Palestinians from across the occupied West Bank and foreign tourists, gathered at the gates, with many jostling to get through as police forces struggled to push them back.

Only a small number of pilgrims with permits and local residents were allowed entry to the Christian Quarter. Meanwhile, worshippers from the Gaza Strip were prevented from even entering the city itself.

The millennium-old celebration, symbolising Jesus's resurrection, usually draws thousands of worshippers from across the world to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried.

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Earlier this week, Israel announced that it would significantly limit access to the event, citing safety concerns. The restriction allows only 1,800 people to be inside the church, with another 1,200 outside, instead of the 10,000 worshippers who typically pack the church during Easter.

On Wednesday, Jerusalem's church leaders condemned Israel's "heavy-handed" decision, calling it an affront to the rights and freedoms of the local Christian community. 

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate vowed not to comply with the restrictions and called on all worshippers to flood the church.

"We shall continue to uphold the status quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend," the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate said in a joint statement.

The restrictions on worshippers came after Israel cancelled hundreds of permits for Palestinian Christians in Gaza hoping to visit Jerusalem for Easter, according to the Church of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza.

More than 700 permits were reportedly granted for the Easter holiday before the cancellation.

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