04/06/2012, 00.00
HOLY LAND
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Nuncio in Holy Land: Easter between checkpoints and war

Mgr Antonio Franco talks about Easter for Christians in the Holy Land. More than 20,000 people took part in Palm Sunday services. Checkpoints in the territories and the war in Syria have discouraged pilgrims. At the Holy Sepulchre, many visitors are tourists, few are believers. In Jordan, Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same date following the Julian calendar.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - "The witness of faith by Christians in the Holy Land is vital for the small communities that dot the Arab world at a time of shocks and a resurgent radical Islam," said Mgr Antonio Franco, nuncio to Israel and Palestine. Speaking to AsiaNews on the occasion of Holy Week, he said, "We need trust and hope so that faith in Christ will help Christians in the Holy Land and the Arab world to face their difficulties, full of love for the life Christ sacrificed for us."

Despite violence elsewhere in the region, especially Syria, this year Holy Week was relative calmer than in previous years, the prelate said. On Palm Sunday, more than 20,000 people took part in the traditional procession from Bethphage to Jerusalem, twice as many as in 2011.

"There were no disturbances along the way. Someone put up banners calling for an end to Israel's occupation of the territories, but the function went off without a hitch and with great devotion," the nuncio explained.

Still, few of the pilgrims were Palestinian Christians, whose movements are restricted by Israeli checkpoints.

Recently, Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land, announced that in 2013 Catholics and Orthodox in Israel and Palestine will celebrate Easter on the same day, following the Julian calendar.

The desire to enhance ecumenical ties between the two communities is the main reason for the change, but so is the pastoral concern for the fate of mixed couples, which are numerous in the Holy Land.

The Easter season is already jointly celebrated in Jordan, Mgr Franco explained. Catholics and Orthodox will in fact celebrate Easter next week on the east bank of the Jordan River as well as in some communities in the Palestinian Territories.

Compared to past years, holy sites are less crowded this year, said Fr Athanasius Macora OFM, former director of the Christian information Center (CIC) who currently monitors the Holy Sepulchre.

"There are many foreign tourists in the streets of Jerusalem but few of them are pilgrims coming to the Holy Land to pray in the sites of Jesus' Passion," he said. (S.C.)

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