The procession of Good Friday 2013 (March 29) — as I experienced it
Being it my first time in Jerusalem during the Holy Week, I could not miss the opportunity to participate in the procession of the Via Crucis, one of the most traditional celebrations of the Easter Latin ritual.
I walked through the Old City around 09:30. The number of Israeli police officers (with at least two different uniforms) was the highest I had ever seen inside the Old City. At some point I was forced to change my route and went through the security checkpoint opening to the Wailing Wall. From there I found a way back to the center of the Old City and then finally to the location of the First Station of the Via Dolorosa, today’s Umariya Elementary School. I arrived there around ten o’clock.
The presence of Israeli policemen, some of them heavily armed, was noticeable all around. Groups of 4-5 police officers were blocking the narrow back streets and alleys intersecting the Via Dolorosa. Some were grim-faced, others nonchalant.
As the procession would not start until 11:30, I went down the Via Dolorosa to the St. Anne Church, near Lyons Gate. Walking there I went through another group of Israeli policemen. I asked one of them why there were so many around. “Security”, he responded, in a tone that would not invite further questions.
The official members of the procession arrived a few minutes past 11:30. First several dozens of children (who I presumed were students from a Roman Catholic school), followed by scores of scouts, a Franciscan fray surrounded by Catholic Palestinian laymen; then a party of 8-9 men carrying a wooden cross and finally a long retinue of Franciscan friars.
By this time, the beginning of Via Dolorosa was fully packed with pilgrims, tourists, dozens of photographers, media (one Spanish TV channel was there with a crew of 3) and bystanders. A few Israeli police officers mixed up with the Palestinians who tried to open the way to the procession, mainly young people with T-shirts with a logo (Arab Catholics Association, if I remember well).
There was confusion, a lot of pushing and unheeded orders outside the Umariya Elementary School, where the procession began with reading of the Gospel in different languages, litanies and songs. The pressure decreased when the leaders of the procession marched ahead to the next Stations.
I joined the mass of Palestinian faithful who followed, recognizing some tunes I have heard in Roman Catholic masses before. Muslim shopkeepers were watching from their doorways, and I saw no hostility in their faces whatsoever —a matter-of-fact expression in some. I guess they should be more than accustomed to see Christian pilgrims around.
One can imagine that the Old City streets through which Jesus walked carrying the cross more than two thousand years ago were also full with bystanders, uncaring merchants, the few courageous followers (mainly women!) who dared to accompany him to the Golgotha — and Roman soldiers concerned with the security.
As we pass the Third Station, I noticed that the police have put up a barrier of metallic structures all along the right side of the Via Dolorosa, creating a sidewalk that was crowded by onlookers and people who wanted to join the procession but were not allowed to do so.
There I identified an Argentinian diplomat (representative to the Palestinian Authority) with his wife and little child, accompanied by a Chilean diplomat with his wife. He told me they had arrived late and were not allowed to join the procession. Nonetheless, once the bulk of the procession went though, they were able to join it. Ten minutes later I found them marching along when we were walking through el-Wad Street.
The confrontation happened when we reached the small square contiguous to the Church of the Redeemer, just before going through the arch door leading to the Holy Sepulcher. I noticed that the Israeli police had also lifted a barricade of steel structures blocking the access from the Muristan Street. The presence of Israeli police officers at this crossroad was substantial; dozens of them.
At the square in front of the Holy Sepulcher I was stopped by another police barrier. I asked one Israeli policeman (he looked of Ethiopian breeding) why we could not go in with the procession. He explained that the group inside was very big and we should wait until they came out before we could get in ourselves. I told him I wanted to be inside the church to celebrate the end of the procession; he said it was not possible. His tone was gentle, almost apologetic. A couple of media people insisted they were only two, and asked permission to go inside. They were gently but firmly denied.
A clash erupted at the intersection of St. Helen and Muristan streets when a group of Christians forced their way through the police barricade and the police responded with force. It lasted only a few minutes. Apparently, one Palestinian youth was detained.
I was allowed to enter the Holy Sepulcher when the initial group was coming out — now the wooden cross was carried by women! A strong cortege of Israeli police was inside the basilica, surrounding and impeding access to the Stone of Anointing.
At the end of the stairway climbing to the Calvary, I found another Israeli police officer. I asked him why such a display of force in a religious site and told him that it debases the sacredness of the place. He responded that they were there because the church was a very old building with not enough safeties and their presence helped to prevent accidents when big groups were visiting it.
I believe that Israeli authorities could provide security to the Good Friday’s procession and other Easter celebration without being so conspicuous and especially without carrying heavy guns as if an army skirmish could happen any time in the Old City.
Muslims fighting Christians? It would be naïve to deny that there is always potential for confrontation between these two communities. However, I have never seen nor experienced any kind of Muslim-Christian confrontations or hostility in my almost 4 years and nine occasions of visiting and walking down the Old City pebbled streets. Conversely, I have seen two individual brawls involving Muslims and Jews.
At the end of that Via Crucis I felt that the spirituality of the celebration was basically ruined by too many armed soldiers and police officers meant to “protect” a peaceful albeit nervous procession.
*Mr. Quintero serves at the World Council of Churches as the EAPPI International Coordinator