You Shall Not Pass: Christians in Jerusalem During Holy Week
“Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Isaiah 2:3, NRSV
To say that Jerusalem in Holy Week is a busy place is an understatement. This year it was particularly bustling because the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrated the same week, which is not always the case. In both the Eastern and Western churches, Easter is scheduled to take place on the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox.
However, Western churches use the Gregorian calendar (the standard calendar for much of the world), and Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar. Most years, this causes the Eastern and Western church to celebrate Easter on different dates. But not so this year! As a clergy person, I was thrilled to learn that I would be in Jerusalem during such an amazing time.
2017 Palm Procession in Jerusalem
The week began with a Palm Sunday Processional from Bethphage down the Mount of Olives and into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Thousands of the faithful participated. Some were local Christians, others were pilgrims from all around the world. It was thrilling for me to be a part of such a grand parade.
Most larger groups carried flags from their country, others carried banners or signs. Many sang, and some of the tunes I knew well enough to join in! Of course, most who participated also carried palms or olive tree branches – some decorated quite elaborately.
I participated with other EA’s and friends I had made in the Palestinian Christian community from Sabeel and the Wi’am Center. There were moments when the parade assembly moved slower which gave me an opportunity to look around and see all the happy faces and pride of the people. It was during one of those pauses when we entered the Lion’s Gate into the Old City that I saw Israeli and Army Police forces enter the crowd to confiscate Palestinian flags from the hands of the marchers.
Entering the Lion’s Gate
This didn’t seem right to me, but then I remembered that in Israel, one’s religious expression can be curtailed if that expression is believed to be a security risk. The problem is that with this logic nearly anything can (and is) considered a security risk. Many Palestinians responded with tears at the confiscations, it was very sad to witness their pain and anguish on what should otherwise be a celebratory day.
Protestant Stations of the Cross
Our next big day of participation was Good Friday. I began early and participated with the Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists and many others in a multi-lingual early morning Via Dolorosa prayer walk, often called “the Stations of the Cross”.
When we reached the fifth station near the Church of the Redeemer I decided to stay and watch what the 20 or so assembled security forces were doing there assembling blockades at 7:30 in the morning. It did not make sense to me that they were planning to block the road 7 hours before the main Holy Sepulcher procession of Crosses was to pass by. When I asked them what they were doing, they simply answered “we are closing the road”.
A Policeman argues with the Priests
About a half hour later, the walk I had participated in earlier was coming around again to enter the Church of the Redeemer. Suddenly, a policeman who appeared to have some authority over the rest walked in front of the group and told them they were not allowed to continue. This upset not only the priests and clergy but the hundreds of people that were in the procession, and a shouting match ensued. The policeman eventually acquiesced, but told the priests if they entered the church they had to depart from it another way.
By 8:30 am, a small crowd of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians began to gather just behind the barriers. The security forces that enacted the closure appeared to become frustrated especially with the foreigners, as they did not speak Hebrew. Over the course of the morning I witnessed three different elderly women get into slapping fights with the security forces who did not let them pass and could not tell them why.
All they could say is that the closure was to last six hours, and we had to remain in place until that time. One elderly Egyptian Copt woman told me in tears “I come so far to see Christ, and they don’t let me pass.” My only response was to pat her back and say, “Sister, they know not what they do.”
People’s hearts were broken when it became clear that they would be unable to pass through the Old City to see the Holy Sepulcher for themselves. At 2:30, security forces finally let the people through the many barriers, and my team and I decided it was time to return to our house and rest.
On the way home, I stopped in to get a haircut at a salon and got into a conversation with the shop owner, an Armenian Christian, who told me that he and his family no longer go into Jerusalem on Good Friday because they are certain they will be denied entry to their Holy sites. After what I experienced today, I can understand why he would be so discouraged. It seems so unfair that local Christians (for whom these days are quite important) feel so disconnected from their churches at what is for them the most holy time of the year.
Holy Fire Saturday
Candles for the Holy Fire
According to Orthodox Christian tradition, on Holy Fire (or Holy Light) Saturday a miracle occurs every year in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Many of the faithful flock into the Old City in order to witness it. For the past 700 years or so, at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon on the day before Easter a blue light will appear within Jesus Christ’s tomb, which then turns into a column of flame.
The tomb is checked ahead of time to ensure that there are no fire-producing elements or burning candles. The Patriarch uses the flame to light candles. He then triumphantly exits the tomb to light the candles of all clergy and pilgrims in attendance. The fire is passed from candle to candle until it reaches the farthest expressions of the Orthodox church.
For the faithful adherents of the Eastern churches of Jerusalem, attendance on Holy Fire Saturday is even more important than Good Friday. People who hope to enter the Old City get in line rather early. I thought that leaving my house at 7:15 am would give me more than enough time to make my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher so that I could monitor access until the Holy Fire was to arrive.
The Jaffa Gate crowd, 9 am
When we arrived at Damascus Gate, we were turned away and told to go to the New Gate (which I believed was incorrect since only local Christians were supposed to enter through the New Gate). Ten minutes later at the New Gate I saw hundreds of Christians waiting to enter, and I decided that we should go on ahead to the Jaffa Gate rather than usurp the place of a local Christian as some tourists seemed able to do. Ten minutes later at the Jaffa Gate we realized that we would probably never get in, as the thousands of Christians had already been waiting hours in line ahead of us to enter.
After speaking with some of the shopkeepers and guests to the city about the disorganization of the messaging and access to the city, at 9:45 am I decided to try to enter through a lesser known gate, the Zion Gate, which accesses the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. Three security people were stationed a few hundred feet in front of the gate, they seemed friendly and were not utilizing the standard Police security barriers. A Policewoman, who seemed to be in charge and spoke good English, told us that they expected to open the road at 11:00 am, so we decided to wait with the small crowd of about 50 people.
Security at Zion Gate
At 10:45 am, security retreated a few hundred feet and the crowd rushed after them to another roadblock, closer to the Zion Gate. At this point, the security forces were becoming more agitated and aggressive. We stepped back 20 yards and watched the interactions between them and the crowd. After some time, my companion decided to ask the same female soldier who told us they would open at 11 what the plan was now. All she could tell us was that she didn’t know. Whatever crowd control systems are being implemented by the various security forces (IDF, Army, Police), they seemed to be woefully uninformed and uncoordinated.
As we waited, I saw that many Jewish families and individuals were allowed entry. Holy Fire Saturday for the Christians was also Shabbat during the week of Pesach (Passover) for the Jews who were making their way to the Western Wall. It was very odd to hear an American tourist ask the guards “Why are the Jews allowed to pass?” only to have the guard say “Because it is more important that the Jews get to the Western Wall (then the Christians get to the Holy Sepulcher)” It broke my heart to see that many of the same people I witnessed get stuck the day before and were unable to enter were again denied entry. Ultimately, we did not make it in to the Old City either.
I served on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. Please do not forward or use any part of this communication without permission. Thank you.