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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Pilgrims packed Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre today to celebrate an Orthodox Christian ritual dating back more than a thousand years - the appearance of the holy fire. Worshippers danced and chanted, and some even poured hot wax on their faces as they passed the flames from candle to candle.

Tradition holds the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the spot where Jesus Christ was buried. Tradition also holds that every year, at precisely 2:00 p.m. on the eve of Orthodox Easter, holy fire descends from heaven, manifesting itself in Christ's tomb as a mark of his love for his followers.

Elaborate ritual surrounds the appearance of the flames. First, local authorities inspect the site believed to be Jesus's tomb for anything that could be used to make fire. Once the inspection is complete, they seal the doors with wax. Then the Orthodox patriarchs enter in splendid procession, making three circuits around the tomb itself, as worshippers sing traditional chants.

Finally, all artificial lights are extinguished and the church falls silent as attendants strip the Greek Orthodox patriarch of his ceremonial vestments. Dressed only in a simple white robe, he enters the tomb alone to pray for holy fire. No one may accompany the patriarch into the tomb. The actual source of the flames is shrouded in secrecy.

But today, just as it's happened for a thousand years, the patriarch emerged from the tomb with a blazing torch. Church bells rang out as he passed the holy fire to waiting religious leaders and then to the assembled worshippers.

Special flights stood ready after the ceremony to carry the fire to Orthodox Christians around the world. In Greece, Russia, Moldova and Bulgaria there were services to celebrate the arrival of priests carrying the holy fire from Jerusalem.

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