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In Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians observe scaled-down Good Friday rituals

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Christians participated in a customary Good Friday procession through the limestone walls of Jerusalem's Old City, commemorating one of the faith's most sacred days with noticeably thinner crowds amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The procession, which normally draws thousands of foreign visitors, was unusually local — mostly Palestinian Christians, joined by some foreigners living in Jerusalem and a few undeterred tourists.

The procession passes along the Way of the Cross, or Via Dolorosa, the route believed to have been walked by Jesus to his crucifixion. Squads of Israeli police set up barricades along the path, rerouting shoppers in the Old City’s bustling Muslim quarter to make way for hundreds of pilgrims.

A young group of Palestinian Arab scouts led the day’s procession, past the 14 stations, each marking an event that befell Jesus on his final journey. Hundreds of Palestinian Christians walked in their wake. Behind them was a small parade of the Franciscan religious order, composed mainly of foreigners who live in Jerusalem.

“We wait for this every year,” said Munira Kamar, a Palestinian Christian from the Old City, who waved to the cross-bearers who stopped to give her young daughter a kiss on the cheek. “Of course, this year we are unhappy because of the situation with the ongoing war.”

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza, launched after Hamas’ Oct. 7 killings and hostage-taking in Israel.

The impact of the war was clear at the procession’s final stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and laid to rest before his resurrection on Easter. There, instead of the crowds who normally queue for hours in the church courtyard, entrance to the site was easy.

The city's streets were noticeably devoid of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the Holy City for Easter. Since Oct. 7, Palestinian worshippers have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

Despite the thinned crowds, shopkeepers, whose heavy metal doors are usually closed on Fridays, threw them open for tourists seeking Catholic memorabilia. But shoppers were few and far between.

“Comparing last year’s Easter festivities with this year is like light and day,” said Fayaz Dakkak, a Palestinian storeowner whose family first opened the shop in 1942. His shop stood empty.

“Usually people are joyful today and kids are excited," he said. "But when you compare children here who have water and food and a family to what’s happening in Gaza, how can you be happy?”

An estimated 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the U.S. State Department’s international religious freedom report for 2022. Approximately 1,300 Christians lived in Gaza, it said. Some Christians are also citizens of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians live in diaspora communities.

A few tourists braved the day. Carmen Ros, a lawyer who lives in Jerusalem, had managed to corral a group of pilgrims from Spain to visit the country for a religious tour. The group rested in the shade outside the church.

“They were afraid of the situation at first,” she said, “but I told them here in Jerusalem, it’s safe, we don’t have violence. We are close to Gaza, but the Christian people are not the target of terrorism.”

The celebrations coincided with the third Friday in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with worshippers once again flocking to the revered Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer. Despite fears the ongoing war would spark clashes at the revered Al-Aqsa mosque, Ramadan has so far been peaceful, under tight Israeli security.

Sister Harriet Kabaije, a pilgrim from Uganda who moved to Jerusalem three weeks ago to live in a monastery, said she was holding the people of Gaza in her prayers. She said she believed that peace could be achieved in the region.

“Many people think that the war here is natural," she said. "But when Jesus was in Bethlehem, it was peaceful. We know that people are suffering in Gaza so we carry them in our prayers and pray that peace can return to this land.”

Elsewhere, Pope Francis skipped the traditional Good Friday procession at the Colosseum in Rome, the Vatican said, to “conserve his health in view of the vigil tomorrow and Mass on Easter Sunday.”

It was the second time Francis had skipped the traditional procession in his 11-year papacy, an event that St. John Paul II famously skipped just before he died in 2005. Francis had also skipped the event in 2023 because he was recovering from bronchitis and it was a particularly cold night.

In Spain, several Good Friday street processions were canceled due to storms that provided some much-needed rain to areas battling a prolonged drought. Seville’s brotherhoods were forced to call off the processions of their giant floats bearing sculptures of Jesus of the Virgin for the first time in over a decade due to bad weather.

In Chicago, hundreds of spectators flocked to the city’s Pilsen neighborhood to witness a Good Friday tradition — the 47th Via Crucis procession reenacting scenes from Jesus’ final days.

“It’s the story that we all know from when we were little kids,” said Jason Rodriguez, a Pilsen resident and event volunteer. "This reenactment drives home the suffering, the strength and the passion that our Lord had.”

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Associated Press writers Teresa Crawford in Chicago, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Joseph Wilson in Madrid contributed to this report.

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This story corrects that this is the second time that Francis skipped the procession.