Easter celebrations began with the Palm Sunday procession. A minute of silence was held for the victims of the attacks in Egypt. A sea of pilgrims is expected, but the Israeli army shut down crossings for a week.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The Holy City of Jerusalem is getting ready for a “crowded” Easter, with a sea of pilgrims, since Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox will celebrate the event on the same day, which also coincides with the end of Passover.
Celebrations began on Sunday with the traditional procession of the Palms, which traces the path Jesus followed upon entering Jerusalem. According to the website of the Custody of the Holy Land, “Pilgrims from all over the world, groups of local Arab parishes, Hebrew-speaking Catholics, and faithful from the church for foreigners [. . .] filled the Holy City with an example of what brotherhood means under the same faith.”
Observance aside, the recent attacks in Egypt were on everyone’s mind. Mgr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who led the Mass at the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre that followed the procession, called for a minute of silence for the victims. Yesterday some Christian and Muslim clergy stood together in a show of solidarity outside the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah.
The reopening on 22 March of the restored Aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre is expected to attract a lot of pilgrims. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has estimated that 180,000 Jewish and Christian pilgrims will visit the city during Holy Week.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Francis Patton said, "We are delighted to offer Christians of the whole world the opportunity to pray in the place of the Resurrection, in an atmosphere of beauty and brotherhood. It is an ecumenical sign – the Churches are working together in fraternal dialogue."
For Fr Patton, spending Easter in the Holy Land means to experience where the "history" and "geography" of salvation take on a concrete form. The ceremonies in the coming days, in fact, reflect every step of the Holy Week in the places where things happened.
At present, the streets of Jerusalem are full of colours and sounds, choirs singing and scouts beating their drums. Palestinian Christians “wait for Holy Week with a lot warmth,” said Fr Patton, “because they feel heirs to Jerusalem’s unbroken history of 2,000 years.”
Samir Qumsieh, director of Al-Mahed Nativity TV, a Catholic TV station in Bethlehem, described to AsiaNews the most joyful moments. "Churches are crowded all week, especially Thursday and Good Friday. On Saturday, Christians wait for the passing of the Sacred Fire that comes from the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, to light candles to bring the fire home. The celebration includes scouts beating their drums, joy visible on their faces. Once home, people paint eggs and cook sweets for Easter Sunday."
Nashat Filmon, director of the Palestinian Bible Society, which serves local Palestinian communities, said that his organisation will focus on local youth. “Our goal is to contribute to the unity of the Church and to support the faithful, especially among the youth and children.” In fact, “We believe that young Palestinian Christians have a role to play by staying put in Jerusalem so as to contribute to a pluralistic, healthy and believing society.”
Yet, many pilgrims will not be able to enter the Holy City, particularly in view of the week-long Feast of Passover, which began on Monday.
What is more, on Monday the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has imposed a weeklong closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. All crossings will be closed to Palestinians “with the exception of humanitarian, medical and exceptional cases” upon approval by the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. It is unclear how the closure will affect Palestinian Christians who celebrate Easter.
“Because of the Jewish Passover holidays, Israel will be restricting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering the city of Jerusalem,” said Bernard Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a sociology professor at Bethlehem University. He added that the measures will affect not only Palestinians, but also foreign pilgrims.
"Slowly, with the occupation, a system of permits has been put in place, separating us more and more from Jerusalem,” said Fr Jamal Khader, director of the seminary of the Latin Patriarchate. “It is more and more distressing to see young Palestinian live without ever going to Jerusalem.”
"We want an open Jerusalem,” Fr Khader added. “Jerusalem should welcome all visitors and all pilgrims, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish."