Pilgrims flock to Jerusalem despite troubles

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The Independent Online

The thousands of Christians who converged on Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday could help to make 2008 the busiest year for pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the millennium, church officials said.

Pilgrims from all over the world, some carrying large wooden crosses, crowded the cobblestoned alleys of the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Suffering – the route Jesus is said to have walked as he dragged the cross on which he was later crucified by the Romans. Their destination was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally regarded as the place of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Police sent hundreds of reinforcements to prevent any incidents in the Old City, which Israel claims to have annexed along with the rest of Arab east Jerusalem after capturing it in the 1967 war.

Despite what some believe is a potentially dangerous lack of progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, this weekend's pilgrims are likely to be followed by equally large numbers of worshippers from the Eastern Christian churches which celebrate Easter in five weeks' time.

Father Athanasius, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Franciscan Order in Jerusalem, said altars at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were fully booked by visitors wanting to celebrate Mass, with up to 25 groups per day visiting over the Easter weekend. He said that at the height of the Palestinian uprising "we were lucky if we had one".

He said there had been "a few cancellations" since a Palestinian gunman shot dead eight students at a Jewish yeshiva school on 6 March – the worst such attack in the city in four years. But in general, he said, pilgrims had been persuaded that this was untypical and about 80 Catholic tour groups were present in the Holy Land at any one time.

Some estimates have put the numbers of pilgrims higher than at any time since 2000 – the year of the Pope's jubilee visit. "Most of the hotels are full and we don't really have the infrastructure for more," said Fr Athanasius. "It's good news but it is a crowded place."

Israel has allowed the usual number of Christian Palestinians from West Bank communities in and around Bethlehem to enter Jerusalem for Easter. Palestinians with permits for religious worship are being allowed through, despite the closure of the border with the West Bank to coincide with the Jewish Purim holiday, which also falls this weekend.

As Mass was celebrated in the packed Sepulchre church yesterday, a first-time pilgrim to Jerusalem, Raquel Deshaverez, 65, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, said: "It is very moving to be here at Easter. It is indescribable."

She said she was not worried about the risk of violence, adding: "It is in the hands of the Lord." The priest leading her tour group, Monsignor Chuck Kosanke from Detroit, said there had been concerns after the yeshiva attack but added: "I contacted a priest I know here and he said things were fine."

However, the fear that this could be the best Easter – not only of previous years but also future ones – was hard to dispel. Did Fr Athanasius worry that conflict could drive pilgrims away again? "Everybody worries about that," he said.