Thousands of Christian Orthodox pilgrims have crowded the Old City of Jerusalem for the Holy Fire ceremony.
The Orthodox Easter Holy Fire is considered a miracle occurring every year on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter Sunday.
The crowding forced police to close the Christian Quarter and tempers flared as Christian pilgrims and local Christians could not get through to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is believed to be built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Israeli police deployed hundreds of officers in to secure the old city as Christian worshipers from the Orthodox denominations eagerly anticipated the ceremony.
Those who arrived early watched as the key-holder to the sacred site arrived to unlock the church doors. Due to the church being divided by different denominations, the keys are held by a Muslim man whose family has been considered neutral by all parties for several generations.
Each year at 14:00 local time (12:00GMT), on the day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, the ceremony marks a miracle.
After a procession around the church, all of the lights inside are extinguished before the entrance of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who carries a handful of candles. When the Patriarch emerges, the candles are believed to be lit by a miraculous flame which is then used to light the candles of the congregation.
Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The day culminated with Christmas Eve Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born.
In Bethlehem, Patriarch Fouad Twal, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem voiced his support for a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI held the traditional Mass at St Peter’s Basilica.
The pontiff urged Christians to “find time and room for God in their fast-paced lives”.
Pope Benedict prayed that Israelis and Palestinians be able to live their lives in peace. He also prayed for peace in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The Mass, usually celebrated at midnight, was brought forward by two hours to avoid tiring the 85-year-old pontiff unduly.
Later on Tuesday, the Pope will deliver his traditional Christmas message to the city of Rome and to the world (Urbi et Orbi).
Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
On Monday, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said this Christmas would be a celebration of “the birth of Christ our lord and the birth of the state of Palestine”.
“The path [to statehood] remains long, and will require a united effort,” he said.
The patriarch, who was born in Jordan, led a symbolic procession from Jerusalem’s Old City to the West Bank city, passing through the separation barrier and checkpoint built by the Israelis.
He was met at the church in Manger Square by thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy.
The patriarch later held the Mass at the Church of Nativity.
“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the sufferings in the Middle East,” he said.
And referring to last month’s hostilities between Israel and Gaza militants, the patriarch said his prayers included “all Arab and Jewish families that have been touched by the conflict”.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas was present at the Mass.
In November, the United Nations upgraded the status of the Palestinians to that of a “non-member observer state”.
Israel – strongly backed by the US – opposed the move, describing it as a Palestinian ploy to bypass stalled peace negotiations.
The Church of Nativity is located in an area of the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority.
In June, the church was formally named a Unesco World Heritage Site – the first to be nominated by the Palestinians, who were made full members of Unesco earlier this year.
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