From the Times of Israel we learn that the Greek Orthodox church held a press conference in Jerusalem on April 12th:
“The Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday accused the Israel Police of infringing on the freedom of worshipers with “heavy-handed” restrictions on how many pilgrims can attend the “Holy Fire” ceremony amid soaring tensions.
Police said the limits are needed for safety during Saturday’s celebration at Jerusalem’s ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the 12th-century holy site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. […]
Church officials told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that negotiations with the police over their “heavy-handed” restrictions had failed.”
A report by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell appeared on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page under the headline “Churches criticise Israeli curbs on Orthodox Easter event in Jerusalem” on the evening of April 12th. Its opening lines inform readers that:
“Church leaders in Jerusalem say Israeli police are imposing “heavy-handed and unnecessary restrictions” on access to an important Orthodox Easter ritual.
They say numbers who can attend Saturday’s Holy Fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre Church are being limited to 1,800, down from 10,000 last year.”
Knell’s claim that ten thousand people attended the ritual last year is inaccurate. In April 2022 the Jerusalem Post reported as follows:
“This year, police asked that participation be limited to 1,000 people in the church and 500 on its outskirts in an effort to avoid a security or other disaster, sparking anger and frustration by church leaders. Ultimately, it upped that number to 4,000 people, including 1,800 inside the church itself.
“The limitation of the crowd during the ceremony in the area of the church area was due to safety reasons only and in order to avoid overcrowding that could endanger the safety and security of the public,” the police said in a statement. “The purpose of the police activity was to enable the Christian public practice the freedom of worship and the ceremony to be held safely and securely and so it was.””
The same JP report noted that:
“In the past, the light set fire to people’s clothes, even their hair, said Tareq Abu Gharbiyyeh, East Jerusalem’s fire chief who has been fire-proofing the ceremony for the last 30 years.”
Nevertheless, Knell’s report goes on to state:
“In a joint statement, church leaders said the Israeli authorities were “enforcing unreasonable, and unprecedented restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulchre – more so than last year”.
They added that these would particularly affect the local Christian community.”
“…Christian leaders say their ceremony has long taken place without serious incidents.”
Knell’s account of the efforts of the authorities responsible for public security in Jerusalem to ensure that a religious ceremony passes without incident even includes amplification of calls to ignore safety directives:
“Church officials are now urging Christians to ignore the restrictions.
“We will hold the ceremony and invite all who wish to worship with us to attend,” Father Mattheos Siopsis of the Greek Orthodox Church told a news conference on Wednesday, also attended by representatives of other denominations governing the holy site.”
There is of course nothing very novel about Christian leaders in Jerusalem, who long since jumped on the bandwagon of politicised narratives, now using safety directives of the kind employed around the world as an excuse to claim “restrictions on access” to a religious ritual at a Christian site with limited space.
Sadly for the BBC’s funding public, neither is it much of a surprise to find Yolande Knell – who since February has been promoting the theme of ‘tensions’ based on calendarial clashes – amplifying such politically motivated narratives. However, the day after the Greek Orthodox church’s press conference was held and media reports began to appear, the Israeli police put out a statement which they requested journalists include in their reporting. That statement reads as follows:
“In regards to journalist inquiries, fake articles, and false publications regarding the Holy Fire ceremony taking place on April 15, 2023 in the Old City of Jerusalem, we will clarify:
In contrast to false publications, *limiting the number of participants is not a result of a police initiative, but a necessary safety requirement, according to the professional analysis of the safety engineer on behalf of the churches (attached is the statement report)*.
The Israel Police is obliged to allow the freedom of worship to all, but first and foremost is committed to preserving the safety of human life and preventing a mass disaster.
A few days ago, the church forwarded the report of the safety engineer on their behalf, which refers to the maximum audience capacity allowed in the site – the opinion that binds everyone without exception.
We will emphasize that even last year, a large attendance was limited as a result of the maximum occupancy and the existing emergency exits. Also, limiting the audience amount for safety reasons takes place in other holy sites as well – for example the Western Wall, holy to the Jews (to which the entry of participants was restricted several times throughout the year during mass events).
The event in discussion is one of the more extremely important events in the Christian world, and therefore the country and the police have invested many resources for its successful continuation, including the deployment of hundreds of police officers and first responders, the deployment of various equipment, technological measures, patrols and careful planning. In the last few months, the Israel Police have conducted extensive administrative work in cooperation with the churches and all the relevant parties, in preparation for the proper and safe existence of the Holy Fire ceremony. The preparations were conducted with the participation of representatives from the churches taking part in the event and with full cooperation in the preparations and coordination for the main event, all in a timely manner for the success of the important event.
*The Israel Police will act to safeguard human life and fulfill the instructions of the safety engineer even during the Holy Fire ceremony, and expects church leaders and organizers to do the same.*”
The police also published documents provided by the safety engineer employed by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself which show that the limit of 1,800 visitors inside the church itself comes from the engineer advising that church’s authorities:
Notably, over half a day after it was made public, Yolande Knell’s report has not been updated to include that information which would provide BBC audiences with a more realistic picture of the story rather than mere amplification of the politicised narrative of church leaders.