What was supposed to be one of the holiest days on the Eastern Orthodox calendar looked more like a prelude to the Crusades in Jerusalem’s Old City as an estimated 10,000 Old City Christians and pilgrims from Russia, Greece and Armenia faced off with hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police on Holy Saturday.
Police set up barriers at all entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where some Christians believe Jesus was buried. From sunrise on Holy Saturday, or the Sabbath of Light, pilgrims waited at police barriers for a chance to get into the church. Most never made it to the church plaza.
The overwhelming police presence was intended for crowd control and was partly in response to expected brawls between the 14 denominations in the church where relations are tenuous. A week earlier, Greeks and Armenians scuffled over rights to the tomb.
All the denominations came prepared--several laymen dressed as priests so they could have access to the church and defend their denominational territory. The Assyrian Orthodox contingent came to blows with police inside the church.
In stark contrast to the respect of evangelical Christian supporters of Israel who pilgrim to the Holy Land throughout the year, traditional Christians see access to the church as their right and despise Israeli interference.
“My father and mother told me that 60 years ago there were no Israelis, no Jews, no police and people came from around the world and there was no problem,” said Jerusalem resident Nicola Pavlov, who is Greek Orthodox. “The Jews, the Israeli police have no right to stop us from going to our church.”
Father Joseph Marquis from Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church, who led a group from Michigan, lambasted police for drinking water while pilgrims passed out from the heat.
“We were treated like criminals,” he said.
Police on the scene privately expressed their distaste with the behavior of Christians on this day.
“It’s insane,” said one policewoman. “But it’s their holiday.”
The Eastern church Easter was a month later than the Western Easter this year. It coincided with the last day of Passover and made for an especially crowded Old City as Christian and Jewish worshippers headed to holy sites.
Today about 14 denominations claim some degree of rights in the Holy Sepulchre and six are allowed to hold daily services including Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox. All denominations abide by a decision that allows a Muslim family to hold the keys to the church.