JERUSALEM — The small doorway to the traditional site of Jesus' tomb cracked open to reveal a bright flame and tens of thousands of worshipers cheered ecstatically, marking the pinnacle of Easter Week's holy fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The annual ritual has been practiced for at least the last 1,200 years on the day before Easter, which celebrates Jesus' resurrection.
Worshipers of various Orthodox Christian sects packed into the Jerusalem church — Christianity's most sacred shrine and revered as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. In the ceremony, a flame believed to be miraculously lit emanates from the tomb.
"I'm all vibrating," said Romanian pilgrim Ivan Kurnia. "It's really, really impressive."
Hours before the ceremony, local Christians and pilgrims from around the world snaked through the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem's old city and filled the small courtyard outside the church. About a thousand Israeli police officers processed the crowds through police barricades that filtered access to the church's only entrance.
Inside gathered a colorful mix of clergymen and worshipers representing the different Orthodox Christian sects — from Armenian monks in black robes and pointed hoods to Russian Orthodox women wearing turquoise headscarves.
People crammed against each other in the dimly lit, cavernous church, and police broke up scuffles. One middle-aged American woman fainted, but she remained standing because people were pressed up against her in the densely packed crowd. Despite the suffocating crowds, the throngs waited in anticipation for the ceremony to begin, clutching bundles of 33 slim candles signifying the years of Jesus' life.
Adorned with a golden crown encrusted with jewels and religious icons, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, entered the Edicule, the small chamber at the core of the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb. Armenian clergymen entered as well, and the door was sealed, guarded by clergymen and an Israeli policeman. The door was then opened to reveal candles lit with the holy fire. The precise details of the flame's source are a closely guarded secret.
Police spokesman Shmuel Ben Rubi said around a thousand police officers were deployed to direct foot traffic and keep the peace. He estimated tens of thousands of worshipers were in the church.
Asaf Abras, spokesman for Jerusalem's firefighting services, said about 10 firefighters with mobile units were stationed around the church in case of emergency.
After the holy fire ceremony, the flame was immediately taken from the church and past an Israeli military barrier into the Palestinian Authority-controlled city of Bethlehem, where it was received at the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birthplace.