1000s of Christians gather in Jerusalem to mark Good Friday, Easter

Tue., April 13, 2004 Nisan 22, 5764

Thousands of Christians gather in Jerusalem to mark Good Friday, Easter

By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service and Reuters

Thousands of Christians gathered in Jerusalem over the weekend to mark
Easter and Good Friday.

Hundreds of Christians gathered for the Easter service Sunday at the Church
of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, led by Latin patriarch of Jerusalem
Michel Sabah.

The number of participants is estimated to be lower this year than other
years due to the closure Israel has placed on the territories until after
Independence Day, for fear of attacks, Israel Radio reported.

On Good Friday, some 11,000 Christians crowded the church, which Christians
consider Christ’s last resting place after his body was removed from the

A roar of joy burst from the throats of the worshipers crowding the Holy
Sepulcher on Friday afternoon, as out of the darkness the light of two
candles suddenly flickered. They were held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch
and the Armenian bishop. This was the culmination of the Good Friday
procession, in which pilgrims from every strain of Christianity crowded the
streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, retracing Jesus’ path to crucifixion.

Both the Western and Eastern Churches are celebrating Easter on the same day
this year, an event that happens rarely because of different calendar
calculations. Perhaps this is what prompted Pope John Paul’s unexpected
Easter appeal for Christian unity on Sunday, saying he hoped the two
branches of Christianity that split apart a thousand years ago could one day
find reconciliation.

Speaking in Italian at the end of his Easter Sunday mass to tens of
thousands of people in St Peter’s Square, the Pope noted the calendar
coincidence and said he hoped it could become permanent. He said he was
praying that all baptized Christians could one day celebrate “this
fundamental feast of their faith together.

Groups from Russia, Poland, Greece, the Philippines and Ethiopia on Friday
followed the stations of the cross along the cobblestoned Via Dolorosa, or
Way of Sorrows, the route Christ took from his trial to his burial,
according to tradition.

Faith has it that the fire erupting once a year from the sepulcher lights
the candles. But this year another mystery was added. Was it the Greek
patriarch who brought the fire, as the Greeks said, or did the Armenian
bishop accompany him, as the Armenians assert.

The fire-lighting ceremony has been held annually for more than 1,000 years.
For the Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and Assyrians, the ceremony symbolizes
the beginning of Christ’s resurrection. Only a representative of the Greek
Orthodox community and a representative of the Armenian community are
allowed into the holy chapel at the sepulcher’s entrance. A few minutes
later they appear at the windows with candles in their hand. Within seconds
the fire lights thousands of candles held by worshipers in the church.

For the past two years, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian leaders have been
fighting about the access right to the source of fire. This year they asked
the Israeli government to settle the issue. But both previous and present
interior ministers kept putting off their decision.

This year, the Jerusalem police told both sides the ceremony would be held
in the same format as last year. “We told them we would not allow any
riots,” police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. “If they don’t reach an
agreement, there will be no ceremony, or only a very small one.”

Finally, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos entered the sepulcher, with
Armenian Bishop Vicken close on his heels. An armed police force kept watch
inside the church to prevent disturbances.

Outside the church, local shopkeepers – some of whom were selling bootlegged
DVDs of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – and police said this
year’s Good Friday turnout was larger than any since the outbreak of the
intifada in September 2000.

Worshipers sang and carried icons, candles, flowers and crosses as they
walked along the alleys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

One group of about a dozen people, each wearing a crown of thorns, carried a
large cross. Another group reenacted the Passion with actors playing the
parts of Jesus, Roman soldiers and the disciples.

The procession often ground to a halt as the throng tried to turn sharp
corners or pass through narrow passages. Some pilgrims tearfully kissed the
pillars of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as they waited to get in. Once
inside, many wiped prayer cloths across the Stone of Unction, where Christ
was anointed for burial.