JERUSALEM — Worshipers filled Christianity's most revered church Saturday, lighting rows of candles, dripping hot wax on their faces and dancing in celebration of the Orthodox Easter "holy fire" ritual.
Orthodox Christians believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands where Jesus was crucified and buried, and that the fire appears spontaneously from his tomb on the eve of Easter as a message that he has not forgotten his followers.
This year's fire ceremony started with the entrance of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilos III, who descended into the church's underground tomb to bring out the flame. When he emerged, church bells pealed and flames were passed around to the thousands of faithful, filling the church with light and smoke.
The event dates back at least 900 years.
The "holy fire" is taken aboard special flights to Athens and other cities, connecting many of the 250 million Orthodox worldwide to their spiritual roots.
Outside the church in Jerusalem's Old City, Israeli police helped worshipers light candles from the flame, many of the faithful stretching their arms across barricades erected to contain the surging crowd.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims packed into the walled Old City for Easter, and many said they had been unable to get past the barriers to reach the ceremony.
Last year, tempers flared as thousands of people waited to pass through security barricades into the Old City. Some priests and pilgrims shoved and punched police, and there were scuffles inside the church. There were no reported disturbances this year, and regular worshipers said the police presence was heavier than it had been previously.
Early today in Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI baptized eight people during a candlelight Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
Benedict started the Mass by blessing a large white candle and carrying it down the main aisle of the darkened basilica. Slowly, the twinkle of the candle flame lighted the basilica.
Tens of thousands of faithful are expected to gather in St. Peter's Square today for the pope's Easter Mass and to hear his "Urbi et Orbi" message delivered from the basilica's central balcony overlooking the square.