Pilgrims stay away from Jerusalem on 'tense' Good Friday

Christian pilgrims carry a wooden cross on the Good Friday procession through the streets of the Old City of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem (GIL COHEN-MAGEN)
Christian pilgrims carry a wooden cross on the Good Friday procession through the streets of the Old City of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem (GIL COHEN-MAGEN)

The war in Gaza hung heavy over Good Friday in Jerusalem with fewer Christian pilgrims walking the path through the walled Old City that they believe Christ took to his crucifixion.

Security was heavy in the narrow alleyways where thousands of Palestinians observing the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan flocked to Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

"It is deeply touching to be here on Good Friday. There is a deep sadness you can feel in the air, which is probably heightened by what is happening (in Gaza)," said Australian John Timmons, who noted he had thought twice about coming.

The solemn procession that winds along the Via Dolorosa, or the "Way of Suffering", started at the spot where Christians believe Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and where his agonies began.

Less than 200 metres (yards) away at Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, the faithful were also called on to ponder suffering, this time of those under bombardment in Gaza.

"God be with our people in Gaza," the imam said as an Islamic prayer for the dead was recited.

As the preacher's words echoed through the narrow streets on a loudspeaker, Italian Catholic Mario Tioti, 64, said Jerusalem's holiness cut through all the tensions and politics.

"It is a very special place. You can feel God and Christ here. He walked here."

Roman Catholics and Protestants were marking Holy Week this week. For the Orthodox churches, Good Friday does not come until May 3.

Treading barefoot over the ancient paving stones dressed in robes, American James Joseph, a longtime Jerusalem resident known as the "Jesus Guy", compared the Gaza war to the biblical story of the "slaughter of the innocents", when King Herod in his fury had thousands of infants killed.

"The suffering that those innocent people are going through (in Gaza and Israel) is tragic but not for nothing," he told AFP at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ is said to have risen from the dead.

- Palestinian Via Dolorosa -

Joseph said the Good Friday message is "God transforming suffering into resurrection. It is mysterious... but he died to save us."

For some Palestinians headed to Al-Aqsa mosque, getting there had been its own Via Dolorosa.

Linda Al-Khatib said heavy Israeli security had turned what is normally a five-minute journey from her village just outside Jerusalem into a 45-minute ordeal of checks and barriers.

"I came to pray because it is a very special day, especially in Ramadan. But I am very sad, there are not many visitors and there are no people. All the way on the road I was afraid," she said.

An Indian-born nun living in Bethlehem for the last 13 years told AFP that it has never been so "tense" or difficult to enter east Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank at Easter.

But for some, the war keeping tourists away was a gift from on high.

"The last time I came there was crowds and crowds trying to get into (Christ's) tomb. It was like Disneyland," said Timothy Curtiss from Texas.

"This year you walk straight in."

saf-fg/ysm/kir