Holy Weeks Opens in Somber Jerusalem

Absence of Pilgrims Notable on Palm Sunday

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JERUSALEM, APR. 8, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Security blockades and a scarcity of pilgrims in Jerusalem put a damper on liturgies as Holy Week opened today.

It was the first time since 1990 that all Christians celebrated Palm Sunday on the same day. Some saw the coincidence between the liturgical calendars of Eastern and Western Christians, at the start of the millennium, as a good sign for ecumenism.

Latin Catholics initiated rites in the early hours of the morning in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. Patriarch Michel Sabbah began the celebration of Jesus´ entry into Jerusalem at 6 a.m., with the blessing of palms and olive branches in the Angel Chapel. After singing the Hosanna, the procession took place.

The celebration culminated with the eucharistic liturgy held in the Apparition Altar. At the same moment, the solemn liturgy of the Greek-Orthodox began in the central part of the basilica. The latter´s procession was eventually joined by Armenian, Syrian and Coptic bishops and faithful.

The faithful of nearby neighborhoods were unable to take part in some of the processions, because of the Israelis´ security blockade imposed on Palestinian territories.

The absence of pilgrims was notable around Jerusalem. Waji Nusseibeh, a guide in the Holy Sepulcher Basilica, in the Old City, said that recently, at most, he has seen 20 pilgrims at any one time.

During the Jubilee year in 2000, things were different. «Last year one had to get into a long line to go into the church or up to Calvary,» Nusseibeh explained. «Some days [pilgrims] had to wait four hours to enter the sepulcher.»

Six months of Palestinian-Israeli fighting have kept many pilgrims away. «I have been living in Israel for 20 years and the situation was never so serious,» said Michele Guetz, who is charge of reservations at the Dan Pearl Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel is only 15% occupied now.

«The impact of the violence is enormous,» admitted Israeli Ministry of Tourism official Oren Drori.

Religious authorities express the same pessimism. «Now people are not coming because they are afraid; and, without pilgrims, the country suffers,» said Father Emilio Barcena, director of the Christian Information Center of Jerusalem.

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