JERUSALEM – Thousands of Christians from around the world celebrated Palm Sunday by walking the path they believe Jesus rode on his donkey as he entered Jerusalem days before his crucifixion.
The procession with the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Patriarch Michel Sabbah, started at the Bethphage Church, where tradition says Jesus mounted the donkey. Participants walked up to the Mount of Olives, then down to the ancient stone walls of the Old City.
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ followers shaking branches to greet him as he entered Jerusalem. The festivities mark the start of Holy Week when, according to the New Testament, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, crucified on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday.
Michelle Alignay, 28, a preschool teacher from San Diego, California, was visiting the Holy Land for the first time.
“All your life you grow up learning, and now I am finally able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and see where it all happened,” Alignay said. “It wasn’t just a story.”
Even some Jewish Israelis joined the procession this year as part of a course they are taking called “Between Judaism and Christianity.” In the courtyard of the Bethphage Church, their Hebrew speech mixed with the Arabic of the Palestinian teenage scouts from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Israel granted the Palestinian scouts special permission to enter Jerusalem for the festivities. For many years, during the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, they were not allowed in, the scouts said.
Some pilgrims said they were wary of coming, concerned by recent bloodshed, including a Palestinian shooting attack earlier this month on a Jewish religious school in Jerusalem in which eight Israelis were killed, as well as violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.
Taxi drivers said Sunday the number of tourists showed that few had been scared away by the violence. The fighting that began in 2001 seriously damaged the local tourism industry, but it has rebounded in recent years.
Israel’s separation barrier, built to keep out suicide bombers, passes right next to the church’s olive grove in the form of a cement wall, blocking the way some pilgrims used to walk from nearby Bethany, in the West Bank town of Azariya, to the holy sites in east Jerusalem. Palestinians complain it cuts Jerusalem off from the West Bank and takes some of their land.
Christians believe that Jesus stopped in Bethany at the house of a leper on his way to Jerusalem.
Sitting in the Bethphage Church’s anemone-speckled field as an Israeli border police jeep sped by along the cement wall, tourist Maria Irene, 76, said she was making the procession with her sister for their 13th time.
“Jesus is here. Here he saved humanity,” said Irene, a retired doctor from Porto in northern Portugal. “At home we pray every day for peace in Israel.”