Orthodox Christian pilgrim holds a candle dur
Orthodox Christian pilgrim holds a candle durFlash 90

Thousands of Christian pilgrims thronged the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City Saturday amid tight security to celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony on the eve of Easter.    

Christians believe that a divine fire from heaven ignites a flame in the church, built on the site where they say Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.    

The flame is then passed between worshippers, candle to candle.    

The crowd roared as the Holy Fire was lit, in an ancient annual rite dating to the 4th century AD to symbolise the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.    

The church filled with smoke from the flames, and scuffles also broke out between priests and pilgrims jostling to get a better view.    

Worshippers from various Christian denominations then processed through the church as pilgrims filed outside to a clamour of church bells.    

Earlier, police enforced tight security and crowd control measures to keep worshippers from surging into the church.    

An Israeli police spokeswoman said tens of thousands of Christians attended the ceremony, packing the church and its surroundings.    

Pilgrims had to elbow their way through Damascus Gate, as all other entrances to the Old City were closed for security reasons for several hours, trapping some worshippers outside the walls.    

UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry issued a statement denouncing what he called an "incident" before the ceremony.  

He said he and other diplomats visited the Easter procession to the church at the invitation of Jerusalem's Christian Arab community.    

The procession was stopped at a security checkpoint before the church "despite earlier assurances... of unhindered access", Serry claimed.    

"The Israeli police refused to allow such entry claiming they had orders to that effect.   

"A precarious standoff ensued, ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through."    

After the ceremony, the "Holy Fire" was passed between worshippers in a procession to nearby Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity where Jesus is believed to have been born.    

The flame will also be flown out to Greece and other Orthodox countries.    

The Church of the Sepulchre, one of Christianity's holiest sites, is shared by six denominations - the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox - in an uneasy and sometimes outright hostile relationship which often results in standoffs and occasional fistfights.  

The Holy Fire ceremony, a high moment in the Eastern Christian calendar, was attended by pilgrims from around the world.