In countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, Easter is a major event for Orthodox Christians, bringing families, friends and neighbors together in a festive yet solemn atmosphere. Celebrations vary from community to community, but all share a deep religious fervor.
While Western Christians celebrated Easter Sunday on April 9, 2023, Eastern Christians celebrated the event a week later, on April 15, following the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar used by Western churches.
The most significant holiday for Christians in the Middle East
Easter is usually punctuated by Holy Week, which includes several religious services and processions and begins with Palm Sunday. The Friday before Easter, called Good Friday, is a solemn time when the faithful mourn the death of Jesus. Easter Sunday, on the other hand, is a time of joy and celebration: churches fill with people singing hymns and exchanging greetings such as “Christ is Risen. In Christian communities in the Middle East, whether Coptic, Maronite, Syriac or Byzantine, Easter celebrations are an important social event, during which families gather to share meals and exchange gifts. Christians offer Maamoul cookies to their Muslim neighbors as a sign of cordiality, and Muslims return the favor during their holidays.
On Easter Saturday, Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which they believe is the site of the crucifixion, to await the sacred fire. This ritual, which dates back to at least the ninth century, sees a flame emerge from the tomb of Jesus Christ, signifying for Christians his resurrection. The church is littered with worshippers praying and singing hymns as they await the arrival of the fire. Outside, the streets are alive with pilgrims from all over the world who have come to witness the event. Once the sacred fire appears, it spreads quickly from person to person, lighting candles and lamps throughout the church. The atmosphere becomes frenzied and joyful celebrations erupt all around the church.The church also welcomes many tourists from other countries. “It’s like I’m dead and alive again… I feel in heaven. I feel in heaven,” Laura, a 47-year-old Romanian tourist, told AFP.
Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem. The Holy fire in Holy Sepulchre pic.twitter.com/4POj8LacO2
— rené troccaz (@troccazrene) April 15, 2023
On Easter Sunday, families and friends gather for a big feast, similar to Christmas dinners in the West. The meal includes traditional dishes such as lamb, rice and salad, all in a very festive atmosphere with lots of food and drink. In some families, brightly painted Easter eggs are also part of the celebration. They are hidden around the house or garden for the children to find.
Christianity : a rooted religion in the Middle East
According to recent estimates, there are approximately 20 million Christians living in the Middle East, which represents about 5% of the region’s population. The majority of these Christians are Orthodox or Catholic, with smaller numbers of Protestants and other denominations. The largest Christian communities are in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, with significant populations in Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
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The main Christian denominations in the Middle East are the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic Churches, such as the Maronite, Melkite and Chaldean Churches. There are also smaller Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, Pentecostals and Evangelicals. In addition, there are ancient churches that date back to the earliest days of Christianity, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria and Iraq. Each of these churches has its own traditions, liturgies and practices, and they all contribute to the rich tapestry of Christian faith in the Arab world.