The Jordan Times
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Easter week – the other snapshots of the Holy City
Christians, Muslims were unable to enter city after the assassination of
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
By Omar Karmi
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Photo
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Anywhere else in the world it would have been an
unseemly melee. But in the Old City of Jerusalem, the sight of robed
Armenian youths scuffling with robed Assyrian youths at the entrance to
Christianity’s holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just seemed
par for the course.
Easter has just passed in Jerusalem, and a city already groaning under
multiple strains was visited by a whole new set of complications.
There were the thousands of tourists that, despite reams of travel warnings,
descended upon the Old City, much to the elation of shopkeepers in the midst
of a fourth lean year.
There was the coincidence with the Jewish Passover holiday, bringing suited
and extravagantly hatted Orthodox Jews into the streets along with the robed
monks and covered nuns of all denominations.
Some tourists carried large wooden crosses on Good Friday to emulate the
last day of Jesus Christ. Orthodox Jews carried the Torah. In the
background, the sounds of ringing church bells mixed with the calls to
prayer from the mosques.
But the multiethnic Technicolour appearance of inter-religious tranquillity
was only that. Jews walked in groups accompanied by armed guards. Muslim men
under 45 were barred from Friday prayers at the Aqsa Mosque, and on April 9,
Good Friday for Christians, they prayed instead outside the walls of the Old
City in front of Damascus Gate.
Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem and Ramallah were largely unable to
enter Jerusalem due to the closure enforced by the Israeli army since the
assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and tightened
during the Passover holiday. Palestinian Muslims, needless to say, had no
Meanwhile, Christians of various denominations are locked in a continual
battle over control of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites that are held in
uneasy check by the so-called Status Quo, based on agreement between the
denominations reached back in 1767. The result is that processions and
ceremonies are very tightly regulated, and any deviation is pounced on by
April 10 marked the biggest day on the Orthodox calendar, the Day of the
Holy Fire, traditionally believed to be the day of resurrection, and
protocol is observed at every turn. The entrance to the Holy Sepulchre is
divided into two. On the left, Armenians, Assyrians and the Copts enter in
that order in their respective processions, the Armenians, entrusted with
the responsibility to open the doors of the church on this day in the year
alone, also guarding the doors. The right, meanwhile, is reserved for the
Arab and Greek Orthodox processions, which entered in that order. Anyone not
respecting the order, or not part of the congregations, will be turned away,
probably the cause of the above-mentioned melee.
The height of the Holy Fire ceremony comes when a light is passed by the
Greek patriarch and an Armenian bishop from inside the supposed Tomb of
Christ to members of their respective congregations waiting outside the
tomb, the Armenians on the north side and the Greeks on the south. The light
gets passed on to the other orthodox communities and is taken to other
Palestinian cities including Bethlehem and Ramallah – that is if they are
allowed across the checkpoints – and by private plane to Greece and Russia.
The light, of course, signifies the resurrection, and how it is lit is a
But here too there is controversy. The Greek Orthodox believe they should
have exclusive access to the Tomb on this day, and this year it took
intervention from the Israeli authorities to maintain the status quo and
ensure that an Armenian bishop gained entrance as per tradition. The
controversy is an old one, and some think it is the friction between the two
clergymen that creates the spark for the candles.
Even tourists are not immune or spared the idiosyncrasies of this city. One
moneychanger on the Via Dolorosa, traditionally believed to be the route
Jesus carried the cross, did not seem too concerned with garnering business.
On a newly printed sign hung prominently outside the door of his shop, he
had written: `All currencies welcome, EXCEPT the USA dollar. We do not
exchange the money of the people who kill our prophets.’
A small group of young American-sounding tourists paused outside the shop
for a while, looking somewhat taken aback. Soon they regained their
composure, however, and started snapping away with their cameras.
A Polish tourist outside the Garden Tomb on Nablus Road – believed by some
to be the true site of the crucifixion (as opposed to the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre) – lost his composure with a persistent postcard salesman who
apparently saw no reason why carrying a large, wooden cross across town on a
hot, sunny day should preclude one from wanting to buy postcards.
Had it not been for the intervention of other cross-bearers, that point
might have been made in a rather un-Christian manner.
Not exactly the stoic example set by Jesus, at least not as depicted by Mel
Gibson in his movie, `The Passion of the Christ.’ But then, anyone hoping to
have watched the movie in Jerusalem over Easter would have been
disappointed. While, contrary to some reports, the movie has not been banned
in Israel, no Israeli distributor has picked it up, and as a result it has
not been shown in the cinemas.
That is not to say it can’t be seen. DVD copies are widely available in the
Old City shops, and, according to one shopkeeper, they are selling like hot
bread. One East Jerusalem hotel based its Easter charity drive around
charging to show the movie (and raised around two-thirds of their target of
$1,800 that way), but advertised only through Christian missions and
With no theatre licence, an illegally copied DVD sent from the US by a
friend of the deacon of a local church, and under the impression that the
film had been banned by the Israeli authorities, the manager was adamant
that neither his name nor the name of the hotel be mentioned, lest he incur
As for the film, on April 8 only four people were in the audience, three of
The fourth, Irene, a born-again Christian from Bulgaria, declared herself
`inspired’ when she was encountered 24 hours later at the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre. `I have been filled with the spirit all day,’ she said, `except
for a brief period when I needed a rest.’