‘Holy Fire’ ceremony held in empty Jerusalem church

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An Orthodox clergyman holds holy fire to transfer to predominantly Orthodox countries from 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 18, 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)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A small group of Christian clerics celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Saturday as the coronavirus pandemic prevented worshippers from taking part in the ancient 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 fire that the faithful view as a divine message. The source of the flame is a closely-guarded secret.

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

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.

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.

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 in special containers on their planes and immediately return home.

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

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