Jerusalem city was more packed for religious celebration

Jerusalem, April 15, 2009 - The Old City of Jerusalem was more packed than it had been in many years as the Catholic Easter coincided with the Orthodox Palm Sunday and the Jewish priestly blessing at the Western Wall for Passover.

People jammed the alleyways of the outdoor market as pilgrims made their way to Easter Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Taking the same path, members of the Orthodox churches headed toward their Palm Sunday services while Jews rushed to the Western Wall for the traditional blessing by the cohanim, priests who are descendants of the priests who served in the biblical Jewish Temple before it was destroyed.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher it was impossible to reach the tomb of Jesus as hundreds of worshippers from around the world and local Catholics participated in an Easter Mass celebrated by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem.

Local Christians of the Orthodox Coptic Church as well as Egyptian Coptic pilgrims -- many dressed in robes and traditional headdresses with palm fronds festively decorated with pink ribbons and flowers -- pushed through the throng to reach the small Coptic shrine behind the tomb.

The larger Greek Orthodox shrine in front of the tomb was overflowing with worshippers and locals as pilgrims celebrated Palm Sunday.

For some pilgrims, like Marietta Olmos, 49, a Catholic originally from Chile now living in Miami, the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime blessing, while for others like Terrence McTigue, 65, of Mercer Island, Wash., it was a nightmare.

"I feel like I am standing before the Lord himself," Olmos said. "I received the sign of peace from the patriarch and you feel the presence of the Lord everywhere here, just stepping on the same places where he stood."

But McTigue felt differently, saying the larger, louder Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday service drowned out the smaller Catholic Mass. There was too much of a sense of competition in all the worship in the church, and not enough sense of the community he associates with Christianity, he said.

Amy Rementillia, 35, a Philippine caretaker living in Tel Aviv, took pictures of the Stone of Unction which marks the spot where tradition holds Jesus was laid out following his crucifixion. People crowded around the stone, strewing rose petals and rose water and touching their handkerchiefs and icons to the stone.

"I want to pray silently but I can't concentrate; it is too crowded," she said.

Two African refugees from Eritrea stood patiently next to the Stone of Unction, waiting for their turn to pray as more aggressive pilgrims pushed their way through, slipping in ahead of them. Finally, Haile, 48, who used only one name, was able to find a spot next to a corner of the stone and leaned his forehead on it. A bit later Kido Kirane Mariam, 34, also managed to reach the stone.

Both Christians, they had traveled from Eritrea through Sudan to reach Israel, they said. Haile has been in Israel for a year and Mariam for two. There are currently about 17,000 African refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Congo, Nigeria and Ivory Coast seeking asylum in Israel.

"We are very grateful to be here. This is the place of Jesus. It is holy," said Haile.

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