JERUSALEM — Thousands of Christians lit candles and torches from a flame that emerged from the tomb of Jesus in a Jerusalem church Saturday as they conducted an ancient fire ritual that celebrates the Messiah's resurrection.
Plumes of smoke wafted through the crammed Church of the Holy Sepulcher as jostling pilgrims carrying crosses, candles and mobile phones set to record the event passed the flame from one to another.
Flanking the chanting crowds were dozens of black-clad Israeli police, specialized khaki-clad riot-prevention forces and border security guards keeping order. Photographers teetered over the crowds trying to snap photos. Palestinian women ululated as the fire emerged. Young men banged on drums and a few heated pilgrims got into fistfights that were broken up by the Israeli forces.
Amid them all were clerics in colorful robes designating their particular church, trying to get as close as possible to the ornate chamber in the cavernous Holy Sepulcher where many Christian traditions believe that Jesus was briefly entombed after he was crucified nearby.
Once they had their candles lit, the pilgrims and clerics quickly rushed outside of the ancient church, seeking to pass on the flames to pilgrims waiting in the narrow cobblestone alleys nearby.
During the annual ceremony, top clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus' tomb. They emerge after some time to reveal candles lit with "holy fire" – said to be miraculously lit as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame's source are a closely guarded secret.
Believing Christians seek to spread the holy fire around the world – symbolizing the light of Christ and his resurrection after death.
"I am here because I would like to see the Easter Week from the Holy Land, because I think it is a very unique experience," said Nerea Craditotto, a Spanish pilgrim.
The pilgrims included visiting priests in black robes, elderly women wearing floral headscarves knotted under their chins, curious tourists and local Palestinian Christians dressed in their best clothes.
For many of them, the day is the pinnacle of Easter celebrations. Eastern Orthodox churches and several others celebrate Easter this week using the older Julian calendar.
Many of the Palestinians obtained Israeli military permission to leave their West Bank towns to enter Jerusalem for the event. In a long-standing grievance, Palestinian Christians and Muslims must seek Israeli military permission to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem.
After the holy fire appeared in the Church of the Holy Seplechur, it started to make its way to points throughout the world.
A Greek religious official carried a torch lit by the fire on a private jet chartered by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, bringing the holy flame to believers in Greece and from there to Cyprus. Other church representatives flew with lit torches to Russia, Romania and other predominantly eastern European countries where there are many Eastern Orthodox Christian faithful, said Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land.
Two flames were also transferred to Israeli military checkpoints near the West Bank Palestinian towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah, and another was brought to the Israeli-controlled border with Jordan, where it was passed off to a church official in Jordan to be spread to other neighboring Arab countries, Diliani said.
The holy fire ritual, which has been practiced for at least 1,200 years, is particularly risky, because the cavernous, winding Sepulcher church has only one exit – the main door. Ambulances cannot reach the area.
This year, as most years, the holy fire spread without incident.
Despite the crowds, the open flames, and the single exit, there has been only one recorded major deadly incident linked to the ritual. In 1834, according to English traveler Robert Curzon, panicked pilgrims prompted a stampede trying to leave the church, and several hundred people were crushed or suffocated to death in the attempt.
But the six Christian sects that stake claim to different sections of the church have been reluctant to build an emergency exit or a fire escape. The sometimes feuding rivals don't want to give up any of their staked-out real estate to construct a second exit.
With additional reporting from Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid