=JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Christians from around the world marched from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to mark Palm Sunday, retracing the steps of Jesus 2,000 years ago.
The pilgrims waved national and church flags and followed a white donkey, which according to Christian tradition was the way Jesus entered the holy city.
A few dozen Israeli police stood by, a small fraction of the forces on duty in recent weeks because of Palestinian unrest. There were no incidents in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
“I see the problems here as a part of the trip, just showing the extremes of this God-drenched city,” said Jane Voigts, a pastor from San Luis Obispo, California. “I’ve really seen more grace and hope amidst the suffering here.”
In past weeks, Palestinian demonstrations followed disclosure of Israeli plans to build apartments in east Jerusalem, as well as rededication of an ancient synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Most West Bank Palestinians were banned from Jerusalem Sunday in keeping with standing Israeli regulations. Palestinians and backers demanding free access to the holy city briefly broke through a crossing between the West Bank town of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Police drove them back and arrested 12. Palestinians said one of those arrested was local Fatah activist Abbas Zaki.
Others celebrated at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and in the Gaza Strip, home to a small Christian population.
“This day is not so much for celebration as a more sombre remembrance,” said 25-year-old Julia Fitzpatrick from Detroit, Michigan, who lives in east Jerusalem and volunteers for a humanitarian non-profit organization.
“What a lot of visitors who may have more distance may not see, is that this is an important witness for the Palestinian Christian population and their traditions,” she said.
The Christian population in the West Bank and Gaza has been dwindling for decades. Many have left for economic reasons and Muslim pressure. About 50,000 Christians live in the Palestinian areas, a tiny minority among about 4 million Muslims. Another 123,000 Christian Arabs live in Israel, about 8 per cent of Israel’s minority Arab population.
According to the Bible, Palm Sunday marks the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem, greeted by cheering crowds bearing palm fronds. It marks the start of Holy Week, which concludes with Easter the following Sunday.
This year the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches mark Holy Week on the same dates. The Orthodox Church uses a different calendar from the others, but they coincide every few years.