By Alastair Macdonald
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Bells, drums, ecstatic chants and flaming candles lit from the tomb of Jesus brought Easter to a joyful climax in Jerusalem on Saturday for Palestinians and thousands of Orthodox Christian pilgrims from around the world.
Sectarian tensions were, as ever, in evidence at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire, which symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. But, under a heavy Israeli police presence, there was none of the factional violence that has seen rival clergy trade punches -- and even a stabbing -- in the past few years.
A mass influx of Russian and other visitors from the former Soviet bloc, and the absence of many Palestinians denied permits from Israel to enter the Old City, confirmed the changing face of Christian rites in Jerusalem since the fall of Communism.
The coincidence of the Easter calendars of the Eastern and Western churches has prompted ecumenical gatherings during Holy Week, notably among the dwindling Christian communities in the West Bank, where Israeli occupation and more militant Islam have fostered emigration in recent years, local church figures said.
Roman Catholics and Protestants, however, eschew the Holy Fire rite; Western visitors have for centuries scoffed at the ceremony in which the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem produces a lighted candle from the sealed and empty tomb -- without the aid of matches or other, visible, terrestrial aids.
At times, terrible stampedes have left worshippers injured or even killed. Several hundred died in a crush in 1834.
For thousands of locals and foreigners packed in the many corners of the ancient church around the ornate stone tomb on the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection, the ritual progressed much as it is must have done for a millennium.
For hours, competing chants, singing and processions marked out areas of the church dominated by the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians, congregations which, with Roman Catholics, have the main rights to the Holy Sepulchre through an arrangement drafted under 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers anxious for calm.
Colorful, noisy groups from other denominations, including Copts from Egypt and Syrian Orthodox, added to the throng.
A couple of dozen teenagers in uniform red T-shirts from one church group, Roman Catholic monks observing with detachment from the upper balconies, and a preponderance of heavy-set young men in clerical garb at the forefront of the main Greek and Armenian delegations lent an air of sporting competition.
But fears of a showdown between the two denominations, whose clergy engaged in a widely televised bout of fisticuffs inside the church less than 18 months ago, proved unfounded.
The Greek patriarch and a senior Armenian cleric both emerged from the tomb bearing the holy fire for their followers.
In seconds, light spread around the darkened chapels as the delighted faithful lit one bunch of candles from flaming others.
"This is the greatest joy of my life," said 64-year-old Suhair Amin, who had travelled two days by bus from Egypt and said many of her Coptic fellows were denied entry to the church.
Competition for places has become particularly intense with Israel's opening of visa-free travel for Russians, tens of millions of whom have embraced the Orthodox Christianity long frozen out under Communism. One Russian attending on Saturday said he had paid $700 for a pass given by one denomination.
Asked whether it was worth it, as the candle flames raced around the church, he was speechless, simply beaming in reply.
Members of smaller but hitherto influential denominations in Jerusalem, like the Greeks and Armenians, are wary of the surge in numbers and money coming from Russia -- and of Israel's potential to use its control as a diplomatic bargaining chip with Moscow, at the expense of smaller churches.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)