In an annual Easter ritual sacred to Orthodox Christians, the “holy fire” was distributed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on April 27 2019, Great Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.
Regarded as a miracle by believers, the appearance of the “holy fire” is a key event in Orthodox Christian celebrations of Easter.
Occurences of miraculous flames are recorded in texts dating back to the fourth century CE, though the “holy fire” ritual became formalised later.
The event is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, with a Pope several centuries ago having dismissed it as a fraud. Protestants also do not recognise it as legitimate.
From Jerusalem, the “holy fire” is distributed to several Orthodox Christian countries, including Bulgaria. Special flights convey the flame to ensure that it arrives in time for late-night liturgies on the eve of Easter Sunday.
In Bulgaria, a country where the majority say that they are Orthodox Christians, Bulgarian National Television dedicated a 90-minute live programme to the event in Jerusalem, the latest consecutive year that it has done so.
The year 2019 is the 15th in which a Bulgarian delegation has travelled to Jerusalem the “holy fire” ritual. The difference this year was the delegation, travelling aboard a government aircraft, was accompanied by a bishop from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”.
The presence of the bishop from the neighbouring former Yugoslav republic came against a background of increasingly cordial relations between Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia. Specialist church news website Dveri said that it was done on the initiative of the Bulgarian government and had not been co-ordinated with the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The Bulgarian delegation is led by Metropolitan Kiprian, who heads the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s commission on relations with the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”, which is not regarded as autocephalous by other Orthodox Church, but which has asked the Bulgarian church to be its mother church.
The presence of Bishop Yakov from North Macedonia is a step forward from 2018, when for the first time, the Bulgarian delegation handed the “holy fire” to a delegation from the neighbouring country on arrival at Sofia Airport.
The “holy fire” is conveyed in special lanterns on the flight to prevent a fire hazard. This year, an additional lantern was carried for the flame to be borne to North Macedonia. Reports said that after landing at Sofia Airport, at an expected time of arrival of 8pm, the government Falcon would take off again, going on to Skopje.