JERUSALEM (AFP) -- The Palestine Liberation Organization denounced Israel for causing "countless difficulties" for Palestinian Christians and Muslims to reach their holy sites as Orthodox Christians held the "Holy Fire" ceremony in Jerusalem Saturday on the eve of Orthodox Easter.
"It is not only that Israel has isolated our occupied capital from the rest of our country -- forcing our people to apply for special military permits to access their families and holy places for religious occasions -- but even Palestinians from Jerusalem were beaten when trying to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," said Hanna Amireh, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and Head of the Presidential Committee on Church Affairs.
Throngs of Orthodox Christians filled Jerusalem's ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre and surrounding streets for the ceremony for which thousands of Israeli police officers were deployed.
Police said tens of thousands of faithful gathered in the streets around the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, causing huge delays at dozens of checkpoints.
"The Israeli forces turned a religious occasion into a battle camp scenario," said Amireh.
"This is part of Israel's plan to turn Jerusalem into an exclusive Jewish city.
"Palestinian Christians and Muslims face countless difficulties in order to reach their holy sites and conduct their celebrations, while Jews from anywhere are allowed to freely pray at their holy places.
"It is time for the international community to take real action," he added.
"What was witnessed in Jerusalem was an attempt to cancel a tradition of 700 years.
"The Israeli government is doing everything possible in order to achieve its goal of changing Jerusalem's landscape, by building more settlements, demolishing more Palestinian homes, revoking more IDs and by attempting to prevent the normal celebration of Christian and Muslim religious events."
The PLO said Israeli police stopped a visit organized by Palestinian Christian groups with foreign diplomats and Adnan Ghaleb al-Husayni, the governor for the Jerusalem Governorate, as they tried to enter the Old City of Jerusalem.
"Even praying has become an act of resistance for Palestinians," said Amireh.
Believers hold that a divine fire from heaven ignites candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch, in an annual rite dating back to the 4th century AD symbolising the resurrection of Christ.
The event, the highlight of the Eastern Christian calendar, was attended by pilgrims from around the world -- predominantly Eastern Europe -- as well as Arab Israelis, all carrying unlit candles.
Greek Patriarch Theophilos III made his traditional grand entry at the head of a procession of monks, chanters and dignitaries with red and gold banners bearing icons.
After circling the shrine in the heart of the church three times, he entered along with the Armenian Patriarch what Orthodox, Roman Catholics and many other Christians believe is Jesus's burial site, emerging minutes later with a lit candle.
The holy flame was swiftly passed from candle to candle between ecstatic believers, most of whom had waited for several hours for the ceremony which filled the air with light and smoke.
Some pilgrims passed their hands through the fire, saying it does not burn them.
The Holy Fire was passed outside to the crowds who watched the ceremony on huge screens, and was then taken to nearby Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, and also flown out to Orthodox countries.
While the Church of the Sepulchre is one of Christianity's holiest sites, it is shared uneasily by six denominations -- the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.
In the past, fist fights have broken out among monks from the different denominations over perceived changes to the fragile status quo hammered out down the centuries.
Roman Catholics in Jerusalem and Bethlehem celebrated Easter on March 31, according to the Gregorian calendar.
But this year other Catholics in the Holy Land, including those from Nazareth, decided for the first time to mark Easter this Sunday under the Orthodox calendar, in an act of ecumenical unity.