Israeli restrictions in the Holy Land are preventing Christians from practising their faith freely this Easter, said Yusef Daher, secretary-general of the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre.
Describing the network of Israeli police barriers that disrupt the flow and number of people able to reach the church of the Holy Sepulchre for Good Friday services and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Easter Vigil, Daher said it was part of the current Israeli Government's policy of making Jerusalem an exclusively Jewish city, adding: "This [restrictions] did not happen 10 years ago."
The Holy Fire ceremony involves the sharing of fire which, according to tradition, is brought forth miraculously from the tomb of Jesus by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs.
The flames are passed from person to person by torches to bundles of candles. Eventually fire from the ceremony is sent to the various parishes of the Holy Land.
The ceremony has become a point of contention over the past 10 years between the Israeli police and local Christians. Police say the single exit into the plaza makes the ceremony a high risk for visitors if a fire breaks out.
In 1808, a fire severely damaged the dome of the Rotunda and dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death, while in the mid-1800s a fire during the Holy Fire Ceremony reportedly also killed hundreds of pilgrims.
Daher, who heads the umbrella group for Christian churches in Jerusalem, acknowledged that although the single entrance and exit to the church cause a potential fire safety hazard, there had been no problem in more than a century.
Meanwhile Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza need special permits in order to attend Holy Week and Easter ceremonies.
Israel grants the permits at the last minute, and then often does not grant enough for everyone in the family to travel.
Over the past two years the Jewish Passover and Easter holiday have coincided and, while the Jews entering the Old City have had complete freedom of movement, the movement of Christians celebrating Good Friday and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony have been restricted by the barriers, Daher said.
Israel has said it will refrain from taking unilateral action concerning the churches in order to avoid provoking protests.
There are about 8,000 Christians living in Jerusalem, Daher said, and 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, with fewer than 2,000 in Gaza.