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Christians Celebrate Easter in Jerusalem

Christians celebrated Easter Sunday in Jerusalem with services in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at other sites in the Holy Land. VOA's Jim Teeple reports that for the first time in four years, five different Christian sects celebrated Easter on the same day.

Jerusalem's Armenian Patriarch led a solemn procession of Armenian monks into the basilica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried. The Armenian procession was just one of several that celebrated Easter Services in one of Christianity's holiest sites on Sunday.

This year for the first time in four years, five different Christian sects celebrated Easter at the same time.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Conner is an Irish Dominican priest who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 50 years, teaching New Testament studies at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique, a graduate school of theology.

Father Jerry, as he is known, says with the convergence of the Orthodox and the Western calendars this year, space is at a premium in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

"This year, it happens every five or six years, the Orthodox and the Western church all celebrate Easter on the same day," he said. "What it means in practice is that schedules have to be kept very tight. People cannot hang around after a service. They have to leave to make room for the others, and of course if they are in a state of spiritual exaltation and delay then there can be trouble unfortunately."

Unlike previous years, there were no clashes reported between followers of different Christian sects. Tobias Raschke, from Munich, who attended Easter Services at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, said he was impressed by how all the different sects and nationalities mixed together.

"We got up at three in the morning to hold a German Easter liturgy and now we have come to the Church to see what is happening here," said Raschke. "This is a crazy place because somehow now they have an Armenian service and then after one hour they have a Catholic service. It is fascinating to see the key to the church is in the hands of a Moslem and the Israeli police making sure that nothing happens. I think it is great the job Israel is doing here, making it safe so people can come here from different faiths and denominations and pray here and everything is safe."

With an easing of security fears this year, the convergence of the Western and Orthodox Christian calendars and weeklong Jewish Passover observances occurring at the same time, Jerusalem hotels reported full occupancy rates for the first time in years.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Conner says with thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors in Jerusalem this year some will probably leave the city disappointed.

"The city is really crowded with pilgrims. The basic meaning of pilgrimage is to go pray at a place," he said. "You go because you believe somehow that prayer there is will be somehow easier or real because a holy person has sanctified it. People who have that unconscious expectation then find themselves in a huge crowd being pushed and shoved and they feel they are being robbed of space to recollect themselves."

Israeli security forces sealed off the occupied West Bank at the beginning of Jewish Passover observances last week, preventing most Palestinians, except those granted special visitors passes, from visiting Jerusalem.

Thousands of Palestinian Christians, mostly from the nearby city of Bethlehem are granted the passes but security restrictions exclude many, especially young men from visiting.

Israeli authorities say the restrictions are necessary to prevent suicide bombings against targets in Israel.

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