Despite Israeli violence, thousands of Christians mark Holy Saturday in Jerusalem
Under occupation: Many Palestinian Christians from the West Bank were prevented from celebrating Easter in Jerusalem this year by Israeli authorities (File/AFP)
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Palestinian Christians of all sects along with pilgrims from around the world mark Holy Saturday today, a day before the Easter holiday.
The largest celebrations for Holy Saturday, known in Arabic as "Saturday of the Light," occur in Jerusalem, where Palestinian Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe a miraculous holy fire emanates from the tomb of Jesus Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The holy fire is then spread by candle across Palestine, as well as to a number of countries with large Eastern Orthodox populations around the world.
In Palestine, the largest celebrations take place in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala, where large crowds gather to receive the holy fire as it arrives as part of a large procession from Jerusalem.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said that the Easter this year is no different than any other year for the city, as Bethlehem is still under Israeli occupation.
She added that many people are still not allowed to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem, except for the few who were given permits to enter by Israeli authorities.
Baboun said that 600 Christians from the Gaza Strip were given permits to enter and celebrate in Bethlehem, but not in Jerusalem.
She added that the prayers this year will be for peace, love and for a brighter future for the Palestinian territories.
Christian leaders and organizations have decried Israeli obstacles to freedom of worship in advance of Easter celebrations this year, highlighting that restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement -- including checkpoints and the limited distribution of permits to enter Jerusalem -- have prevented many from participating in celebrations.
In Bethlehem, ceremonial celebrations to welcome the holy fire are being presided over by the Greek Orthodox patriarch, the governor of Bethlehem Abd-al Fattah Hamayel, the Palestinian Authority president's counselor for Christian affairs Ziad Bandak, Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, and Bethlehem police chief Alaa Shalabi and will take place in the Nativity Church.
In nearby Beit Sahour, Mayor Hani Hayek, priests and Christian locals will welcome the fire at the city's entrance, from where it will be taken to the village's many churches.
In Beit Jala, meanwhile, the Holy Fire will be welcomed by local scouts who will distribute it across the town's churches.
Public relations officer of Bethlehem police Loay Zreiqat said that the police will be present at the welcoming ceremonies of the holy fire in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.
He added that there are no roads will be closed except where the ceremonies will take place and that people will be able to access celebration areas easily.
Last week, Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna condemned Israeli authorities for imposing obstacles on Christians wishing to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem.
"The Israeli security pretexts are unacceptable in every way," he said in a statement.
In a report published in 2012, the US State Department highlighted Israeli policies restricting freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
"Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents' ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem," the report said.
"The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany (al-Eizariya) and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier."
East Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, was occupied by Israeli forces in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community.
There are around 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and inside Israel, while hundreds of thousands more live abroad.
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