Saturday, October 24, 2020

Devotion and restrictions in Jerusalem this Easter

By Beth Staton - April 22, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Jerusalem]

The view from inside the Holy Sepulchre on easter day | Lazar Simeonov 
It is just past midday on the Via Dolorosa, and Jesus Christ, or at least a devotee dressed as him, is carrying a crucifix. Covered in red paint and with a crown of thorns on his head, he is led by a gaggle of followers wearing purple, sequinned headdresses. The party is surrounded by hundreds of people, cameras, smartphones and iPads raised above the crowd toward the center of the action. 
And because this is Good Friday in Jerusalem, the Passion is surrounded, too, by dozens of police and soldiers. Their vests are hung with helmets, guns and batons, and they form a ring around the performers that are re-enacting the crucifixion. 
For any one of the tens of thousands of visitors that fill Jerusalem over the Easter weekend, the security presence is a defining feature of the experience. In the main arteries of the old city, security barriers section off the streets and cut through it completely every few hundred metres. The crowds that mass behind them include tourists, pilgrims, journalists and the Palestinians that live in the city. 
Robert Mancilla, 62, who has been reenacting the last hours before Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem with his Californian Evangelical church for 17 years, says security has intensified. “When we started doing this, there were no police,” he told Palestine Monitor. “Then gradually they got involved. We found that as we were moving up the route, the Muslims were coming the opposite way. There were too many people coming in opposite ways and it was chaos.”
While pilgrims might perceive some benefit from the heavy security presence, other accounts from the Holy City tell a different story. This year, the policing was highlighted when Robert Serry, the UN’s Middle East Envoy, publicly criticised the “unacceptable behaviour” of authorities and appealed for parties to “respect the right to religious freedom.” On Saturday, Serry was on his way to the Holy Fire Ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem when he was stopped at a checkpoint and prevented from attending.
Many of the Palestinians that live and work in the Old City echoed Serry’s sentiment. The teenagers battling through the crowds from afternoon prayers or those forced to wait behind metal barriers were the most visible pictures of frustration; in the religious stores that depend on pilgrims for a living, the mood among proprietors was bleak. 
“Every year it becomes bad, more bad than before,” one trader, whose shop stands just beyond the church of the Holy Sepulchre, said. “People are put off by the politics, by getting pushed by policemen. We don’t see any Europeans anymore, just Egyptians, Russians, and Christian workers from Tel Aviv.”
Other shopkeepers based in the old city feel the same. “Business?” another shopkeeper said. “The streets are filled with soldiers and police. That is business.” For fear of “problems” from Israeli authorities, none of the traders Palestine Monitor spoke with were happy to give their names. 
“It’s killing the shop,” said another trader. “You come here, in front of my store, and there are 200 soldiers sitting around eating sandwiches.” Like many of the traders of religious paraphernalia and trinkets around the Holy Sepulchre, this man’s store is a family-run enterprise -- one that dates back to the 19th Century. This Holy Saturday, he says, the restrictions around the Holy Sepulchre mean the store will have to close during the holiday the first time. 
“People are coming here to pray, not to see the police,” he says. “But the soldiers and police are always here. They insult everyone. In the past, under Jordanian and British rule, there was never this kind of policing. It’s the Israeli occupation.”
This year, the storekeepers’ frustrations were raised through official channels. The heads of five Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land submitted a petition to the Israeli High Court requesting an end to the heavy security restrictions on Holy Saturday, and a recent internal EU report on religious restriction in Jerusalem highlighted the tough policing of Easter celebrations. 
These measures, are not the only obstacles to worship for Palestinian Christians at this time of year. For those that live in the West Bank and Gaza, visiting the holy sites of Jerusalem requires obtaining a permit -- a time consuming process with no guarantee of a positive outcome. Those Christian refugees that fled beyond Palestine during the Nakba and Naksa are also denied the right to return, and thus robbed of the freedom to worship at their holy sites. 
For residents of East Jerusalem, the system of road blocks and restrictions means enormous inconvenience and even a denial of entry to one’s own home. One trader told Palestine Monitor that, three years ago, he was given a permit to enter the old city. After being checked and searched seven times, he was stopped at the final barrier before his store and told that he could not cross. 
Another described being barred from taking the five minute route between his business and his home, and forced instead to walk around the whole city by a system of soldiers and roadblocks. “This is the democracy of Israel: forcing a 75-year-old to walk for so long to return to his own home,” he said. 

Among the Christian shopkeepers of the city, there is little hope that things might improve. “What do I think about the future?” asks one owner, sitting outside a store that’s been in his family for nearly a century. “I don’t know. Maybe this store will be taken over by Orthodox Jews. Already Israelis are asking us to sell our shops for many times more than what they are worth. The hotel behind this store, they have already taken. The Israelis want this city. So in the future? I cannot say.” 

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