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Sacred rite for Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem marred by coronavirus

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Sacred rite for Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem marred by coronavirus
Copyright  Ariel Schalit/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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One of the most sacred Easter symbols of the Christian Orthodox faith - the Holy Fire - arrived in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Saturday (April 18).

But the coronavirus outbreak meant only a top group of Eastern Orthodox clerics were able to receive it.

In normal times, Bethlehem's Manger Square would be packed with thousands of pilgrims and worshippers who would pass the holy fire to each other to light their candles.

This year, crowds have been banned in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

The Holy Fire ritual, celebrated the day before the Orthodox Easter, marks the belief that a fire appears spontaneously every year from the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem.

The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years, and the precise details of the flame's source are a closely guarded secret.

From Jerusalem, the fire is distributed to Bethlehem, where tradition says Jesus was born, and to a number of Eastern Orthodox countries.

As the coronavirus lockdown continues, Israel has said it is making arrangements to help church leaders transfer the flame to predominantly Orthodox countries including Greece, Russia and Romania.