Tight Security Constrains Holy Land Easter Celebrations

In stark contrast to the crowds which teemed through t he Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the ancient church was not nearly as full on Easter as each Christian community celebrated services at separate pre-agreed times at the spot believed to be Jesus' tomb. Through a confluence of the religious calendars, Eastern Orthodox and Western Holy Week and Easter and the Jewish Passover holiday all fell during the same week, bringing tens of thousands of Christian and Jewish pilgrims to the winding alleys of Jerusalem's Old City.

Christian pilgrims stood in an orderly line Easter Sunday at Calvary, the site of Jesus' crucifixion, as they waited their turn to pray at the silver star marking the spot where it is believed the cross stood. They then filed out quietly and climbed down the steep stairs to the site of the Stone of Unction where tradition holds that Jesus was laid out according to Jewish tradition after his death.

"Every year we must celebrate Easter, especially in East Jerusalem because we are proud of all these rituals and welcoming all these pilgrims coming to Jerusalem," said Rana, 40, a Catholic Palestinian from Jerusalem who asked that her last name not be used. "This year it was very crowded and we were facing a lot of restrictions in our procession. [The police] were very rude and pushed people," she said.

Local Palestinian Christians have complained about extreme security measures taken by Israeli authorities during Holy Week since 2005. "It was simply too much," Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, said of the security measures. "There was a new kind of iron barricade and there were too many police. They were rude, pushing priests and old people. They don't understand the feelings of the people [who] are going to pray."

On Good Friday and Holy Saturday local Palestinians said they were frustrated by what they felt was the excessive presence of Israeli police and the numerous barricades on the Via Dolorosa. Several scuffles broke out among young men participating in the processions and police at some of the barricades, which the authorities maintained were put up to aid in crowd control. Several arrests were made.

Holy Saturday also coincided with the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony when tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to witness the Holy Fire brought forth from the site believed to be Jesus' tomb.

"Police are not familiar with the dynamics of the processions," noted U.S. Franciscan Father Athanasius Macora, who monitors the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. "They need a more sophisticated and detailed approach to understand the movement of the communities," he said. "I'm not saying it is going to be easy." For the first time the Franciscan Good Friday procession was blocked because of police security, he said, albeit for five minutes.

Christian Palestinians also accused Israel of preventing people from reaching the holy sites during the holiday and prohibiting pilgrims from participating in religious ceremonies. Although Israel said 10,000 travel permits for Christians from the West Bank and another 500 permits for Gaza Christians were issued, local Christian groups said that only 3,000 West Bank Christians and fewer than 500 from Gaza were permitted into Jerusalem.

Local Christians said many people opted not to take part in the ceremonies because of the humiliating way they are treated by the Israeli police. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has only one exit and police say they must limit the number of people who enter the church in order to prevent a fire hazard during the Holy Fire ceremony.

"It is a really sensitive issue between access and safety. It is a relatively fine line. The church just fills up. The church is too small for the number of people [who want to participate in the ceremony]," said a Catholic Church source who asked to remain unidentified. The man said some Palestinians were trying to put a nationalistic slant on the issue, charging that Israel was intentionally trying to prevent Christians from reaching holy sites and exercising their right to freedom of worship.

"The problem has to be resolved," he said. "I don't know if it can be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone. The question is how dangerous it really is if the church is packed full of people."

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