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Jerusalem Part 3, Why It Matters to Christians

For many Christians, like these clergy members, Jerusalem is a religious destination.

Jerusalem’s new light rail system runs entirely outside of the old city, bypassing the holy sites. More than a million Christian pilgrims visit the Holy Land each year. As with the new transit line, much of what they view, including the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they see as outsiders, but not without detachment.

Thousands come to these narrow alleys as they have for centuries. Many of them will likely never ride on the city's budding state-of-the art transit system or hear it passing outside the old city gates. For them, ancient Jerusalem is a religious destination.

The pilgrims come to see the sites of biblical history, and to remember the event that is the cornerstone belief of the world's more than two billion Christians: For them, this is the place where Jesus suffered, was crucified, and rose from the dead.

Every Friday, pilgrims follow the Way of the Cross in the old city's Via Dolorosa, marking Christ's steps to His crucifixion.
The procession ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Along the way, Jewish homes in the Muslim quarter are reminders that this is a flashpoint in the conflict pitting Israelis against Palestinians.

Sister Belen, a nun from Spain, sees the seemingly never-ending struggle for Jerusalem as a testament to the city's importance. "This has been a very conflicted place, and I believe it is due to the mystery of God's presence in this city. None other has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times. The whole world makes a pilgrimage here. You have all three monotheistic religions. It is an important place in the world and it hides within it a mystery that cannot be deciphered, but one that moves us to come here," she said.

The number of pilgrims coming has been rising in the last few years.

At the same time, the population of native Palestinian Christians living here is dwindling, as many flee the pressures of the conflict.

The last time Christians fought a religious war for control of the city was during the Crusades, starting nine centuries ago, when they captured the Holy Land from its Muslim rulers in order to regain safe passage for pilgrims to Christian holy sites.

Today, of the three groups present in Jerusalem, the Christians are the only ones without a political stake in the city. Their interest is in having access to the holy sites.

Father Frederic Mans is scholar at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, a biblical school in Jerusalem's old city. "Christianity was born in Jerusalem. For the Christians it is very important because Jesus died in this city. Those are our only pretensions, only to pray in this holy city," he said.

Sister Belen has made the pilgrimage several times. She says she will come back if she can. "It is because, the way I see it, God has left His handprint here and since we as humans cannot aspire to more, we come looking for that mystery of God. We come looking for the face and handprint of God, walking in our pilgrimage to the Jerusalem in heaven, which is waiting for us," she said.

In this city, she is a visitor, just passing through. She prays that Jerusalem lives up to its name as the city of peace.

This is part three of a three part series. Part one can be seen here. Part two can be seen here.