“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”

Calm welcomes thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday

Thousands of Christian pilgrims, waving palm fronds, marched Sunday from the Mount of Olives into the Old City of Jerusalem to retrace Jesus’ triumphant return to the holy city 20 centuries ago.

Thousands of Christian pilgrims, waving palm fronds, marched Sunday from the Mount of Olives into the Old City of Jerusalem to retrace Jesus’ triumphant return to the holy city 20 centuries ago.

The procession, which inaugurated the Christian holy week leading up to Easter Sunday, was much larger than other in recent years, with many foreigners drawn to the region by a lull in violence.

In Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians mixed politics with religion, turning their march into a demonstration against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

“As Palestinian people, we cannot move between our cities,” complained Ahmed al-Aze of Bethlehem. “We cannot go to pray in Jerusalem” because of the barrier.

A bright, warm, sunny day greeted the pilgrims for the walk down the Mount of Olives and up the hill across from it into the Old City of Jerusalem. Priests, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, wore colourful frocks, and many of the marchers carried flags as well as palm leaves.

The large crowd was a reflection of restoration of calm in the region after four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Tourists from around the world joined local Christians for the walk, which takes about an hour.

From 2000 to 2004 the number of Christian tourists visiting Israel dropped by one-third. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism projects an increase of 500,000 foreign visitors this year, hoping many will be Christians.

Most of the pilgrims were Israeli Christian Arabs who come from Jerusalem and Arab-populated cities such as Galilee, Haifa and Nazareth, said Maurice Sbeit, a tour guide from northern Galilee ushering 20 German pilgrims through the procession.

An Israeli Christian and former Israeli army officer, Sbeit said: “This is a good chance for us to demonstrate our Christian faith and our presence as a minority group in this country.”

About 118,000 Christian Palestinians live in Israel, while 48,000 live in the West Bank and Gaza.

Violence has dropped considerably since Mahmoud Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader in January. Last month, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to the bloodshed.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion of Jesus, and Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection.

According to tradition, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as followers spread palm branches in his path. Palestinian children sold palm fronds to pilgrims along the path of the procession route that was lined with Muslim families.

Sami Farded, 42, a Muslim resident of the Mount of Olives, said he and his neighbours have come to the march every year since he can remember “to share in Jesus’ message of giving peace and love.”

“It’s kind of an honour to see the procession of Jesus pass with people from so many denominations, so many countries,” he said.

A discovery of Jewish graves in 1954 has caused biblical scholars to reconsider the route Jesus would have followed into Jerusalem as a “ruler of peace.”

Jewish tradition holds that Jesus would not have brought his followers through a Jewish cemetery. However, since AD 330, the ritual procession has passed within 30 metres of a Jewish burial site archeologists and scholars believe existed before the time of Jesus, said archeologist Joe Zias.

Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem tried to recreate the journey from a different direction. Several hundred Palestinians set out for Jerusalem on foot, with a few riding donkeys, knowing they would get no further than the separation barrier Israel is building between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The march began in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, marking the birthplace of Jesus. A large banner painted in pastels declared, They will not stop us, referring to the barrier.

Slabs of concrete 7 1/2-metres high blocked the way at the outskirts of the West Bank town, and the marchers walked past a site where workers were still constructing the barrier. A line of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary police blocked the way at a checkpoint.

Israel says it needs the barrier to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out. Several have infiltrated from Bethlehem into Jerusalem, just five kilometres away, blowing up buses and a supermarket.

Sbeit said he knows many Arab Christians who were not permitted to join the traditional path Jesus walked. “It’s not fair. All Palestinian Christians should have the right to attend this holy occasion; it belongs to everyone.” Sbeit said.

Israel plans about a dozen crossing points through the barrier, but only Palestinians with permits will be allowed to enter.

Bethlehem’s mayor and residents complain that the route of the barrier cuts into the town, taking some of its land and isolating some Palestinians on the “Israeli” side.

2005-03-21T00:00:00+00:00 March 21st, 2005|Categories: News|