Weekly Update:

April 4, 2010

Easter Weekend, Jerusalem:

 I went to Jerusalem on Good Friday, instead of the usual demonstrations in Bil’in or Nabe Saleh­­­. Christians from all over the world came to Jerusalem for Easter weekend. I saw West Africans in bright yellow printed clothes, Ethiopians with the white veils, Russian Orthodox, Catholic priests, and Western Christians from Europe and America. There were almost as many photographers as pilgrims there to catch the processions up the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross).

 Who wasn’t there?

 Palestinian Christians:

 Out of all the nationalities and cultures of Christians from around the world, one was missing. And they LIVE just minutes away from Jerusalem—the Palestinian Christians. About 7% of Palestinians are Christians, and they are often overlooked because most people assume that Palestinians are all Muslims. But these Palestinians are the descendents of the people who were likely to have known Jesus 2,000 years ago. They could be his descendents. But the Israeli authorities would not allow them to leave the West Bank to celebrate the holiday with the rest of the world’s Christians. Shame on them.

 This year was kind of a perfect storm of religious holidays. Because some religious sects use the lunar calendar instead of the western calendar, the dates of Easter and Passover change by a few days a year. This year, the Orthodox Easter, Catholic Easter, and Passover coincided. When there is a Jewish holiday, the Israeli authorities usually close the West Bank—they do not allow Palestinians, even those with Jerusalem IDs which are supposed to allow them to cross the checkpoints into Israel, to leave the West Bank until their holiday is over. Passover is about a week long—during this time, only emergency situations can allow a Palestinian to leave the West Bank. This doesn’t include partaking in the Easter celebrations in Jerusalem.

 Palm Sunday Detainees:

 On Palm Sunday last week, there was a large nonviolent demonstration against Israel’s policy of not allowing Palestinian Christians to worship in Jerusalem. They demonstrated at the 300 Checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There were hundreds of protestors, and they succeeded in getting through the gates, but once on the other side they were surrounded by armed Israeli soldiers and many were detained. Abbas Zaki, a senior Fateh official, was one of those detained. He is still being held in an Israeli prison and has not been officially charged with anything yet.

 Old City Madness:

 Since I am an international, I am able to pass through the checkpoints during these lock-downs. I went to Jerusalem on Good Friday to see what would happen—the Old City of Jerusalem was filled with Israeli riot police and soldiers carrying M-16’s to “keep the peace”. Unofficially, the soldiers were there to keep Palestinians away from the area where Christian pilgrims from all over the world would be.

 Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem is like walking through a very complicated maze. I always get lost, but this time I thought it would be easy because getting to the Via Dolorosa from the Damascus Gate (one of the major entrances to the Old City) is one straight road.

 This day, however, the Israeli soldiers had set up blockades to keep the Muslim quarter separated from the area where the Christian celebrations would be. For most of the day, the soldiers wouldn’t let the Palestinians even walk through the Christian area to get to wherever they needed to go. There were almost riots, but because there were hundreds of photographers there to catch the Israelis racist policies, they decided to open a lane to let the Palestinians through the area.

 Via Dolorosa:

 I, however, arrived while the blockades were still there. So my straight, easy road was disrupted and I had to take a detour deep into the Muslim quarter where I always get lost. Luckily, I guessed the right turns and eventually made it to the Austrian Hospice (for pilgrims, and for tourists to use their amazing roof-top view of the Old City for pictures) and tried to find my friends in the crowds and chaos.

 I couldn’t see any of them, so I went to the roof of the hospice to get a little break from the insane crowds. At the top, I noticed one of the processions beginning from the bottom of the Via Dolorosa (all the Christian sects have processions up this street where Jesus is believed to have walked with the cross). The first one I saw was an Eastern Orthodox procession. They actually had a man playing Jesus, covered in blood and cuts (couldn’t tell if they were real or not….but I heard that some of the more intense denominations actually beat themselves or even crucify themselves on Good Friday) and with a crown of thorns on his head. He was carrying a large, heavy looking cross.


 He was flanked by orthodox pilgrims, as many photographers, and proceeded by about a dozen Israeli riot police who had to literally push and shove and beat their way through the crowd so they could make it up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchar. The most disturbing part of this insanity was a recording they were playing with the procession. It was a young girl’s voice saying over and over “Help him! Please! Somebody help him!”

 It was quite strange.

 The other processions were less bloody.

 Finally I went down to the street again and randomly met up with a few friends from Ramallah who were equally happy not to be alone in this crazy crowd of pilgrims and photographers. We watched a few more of the processions then decided to fight (literally!) our way up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchar (the spot where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, his body washed, and buried).

 The alleyways of the Old City are notoriously small anyway, but with the added presence of thousands and thousands of pilgrims, it was almost impossible to move. We all went single file, pushing and being pushed, up the Via Dolorosa.

 Church of the Holy Sepulcher:

 Finally, we made it to the entrance of the church. The Israelis, in some crazy attempt at crowd control, decided to make a blockade outside the church until a certain time, when they would allow the pilgrims inside. So we were near the gates they used to keep the people out, with more and more processions coming up behind us thinking they could go straight into the church. Imagine this crushing wave of pilgrims behind you and Israelis with M-16s in front of you who wouldn’t let you through the gates even if you were being trampled. There was a very real possibility of people being stampeded and crushed to death in this crowd.

 As I began to freak out, the Israelis slowly disappeared one by one and then the crowd pushed through the gates and into the ONE doorway that led to the church yard. This is like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Insanity.

 We somehow survived this and made it into the churchyard where the Israelis had set up a pretty good system of getting people in one direction and out the other, without too many people being allowed to just stay in one place—which is good when you have thousands of people fanatically trying to reach the church.

 Inside the churchyard, we waited, unsure of whether is was safe to try to go inside with all the people. Then, a fight broke out between a Palestinian Christian procession (Palestinians who live in Jerusalem) and the Israeli riot control police. It was so sad to see fighting on Good Friday inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchar. But it reminded me that this place is crazy and there is never a separation of religion and politics.

 Christians inside the church started singing hymns and playing them over the loudspeaker in an attempt to calm the situation down. It did eventually, but mostly because of the dozens of Israeli riot police that ran into the fight.

 We decided it wasn’t safe inside or outside but we should try and at least see what was happening inside the church, so in we went. Inside, the pilgrims were mostly Eastern Orthodox women and Catholic priests—along with religious tourists and photographers. The craziest spot was the place where Jesus’ body was washed after he was taken off the cross. There is a big stone slab on the ground, with candles hanging above it. Many Christians believe that if you kiss this stone, or put any item on it, they will be blessed.

 So there were dozens of people fighting each other to get close to this stone.

 Upstairs (because the Church of the Holy Sepulchar as it is now was not built all at once. Each denomination added their own areas and chapels. There are many denominations fighting over the rights to different areas of the church. For example, the roof of the church is supposed to be shared by the Ethiopian and Armenian monks. But they have been fighting over the huts on the roof for decades. Last year, my roommate said monks were actually fighting and hitting each other with crosses!) is the spot where Jesus was actually crucified. The stone where his body was washed is straight in front of the entrance, and his tomb is down a hallway to the left.


 We decided we’d had enough of the crowds and needed to get out of the Old City as fast as possible. We walked out through the Christian quarter, pushing and being pushed as we tried to escape the madness. Finally we made it out the Jaffa Gate and went straight to a park we know in West Jerusalem where we would not be surrounded by crowds of fanatical pilgrims.

 We laid down on the grass by a little stream and decompressed for a while, then headed back to Ramallah.

 Miracle of the Holy Fire:

 The next day, Saturday, my roommate went to try to get pictures of the Miracle of the Holy Fire (Considered by some as the longest reoccurring miracle—every year, on Easter Saturday at 2pm, an Orthodox priest enters the church with an unlit candle, and it miraculously lights. Afterwards, this holy fire is mailed all over the world to light candles in churches for Easter). He couldn’t even get near the church however, because people had camped out in and around the church for days in order to see the miracle.


 This week, there was a skirmish near the Gaza-Israeli border. Israeli soldiers fired at a group of Palestinians who were “too close” to the border. When the Palestinians fired back, one of the hand grenades an Israeli soldier had attached to his vest exploded—killing him and one other soldier. 2 Palestinians were also killed in the fire fight.

 Israelis are like Americans in that even one soldier dead is considered a huge tragedy—so we were all worried that they might do their usual revenge of killing 10 (or more…) Palestinians for every soldier dead. However, the next day Passover started so they were unable to make a big operation in Gaza.

 Israeli warplanes have been firing on the territory sporadically since that event, and are expected to attack more violently after Passover is finished this week.


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