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Israeli police block U.N. envoy during procession with Palestinian Christians

By Greg Botelho and Kareem Khadder, CNN
updated 8:50 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.N. envoy Robert Serry, a group of Palestinian Christians proceed through the Old City
  • A woman says the group wants to get into church "to pray"; Israeli police block them
  • Serry says he's dismayed, urges respect for "religious freedom," no "provocations"
  • An Israeli official tells a newspaper police were limiting the crowd, calling it a "non-event"

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israeli security forces halted Palestinian Christians -- joined by a U.N. envoy -- participating a pre-Easter procession Saturday in Jerusalem's Old City, an action the envoy sharply criticized but that an Israeli official dismissed as a "non-event."

Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, was among a large, tightly packed group trying to walk together on what is Holy Saturday on the Christian calendar. A woman yells out at one point, "They are preventing us from accessing our churches to pray."

Some time later, the people are stopped by security forces. Barricades are set up, only to be picked up and taken away. There's also some pushing and shoving before the scene eventually calms down.

The special coordinator's office explained that the group had intended to move from the area's New Gate to the Holy Sepulchre "at the invitation of the Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem." It said the group had been earlier given "assurances ... of unhindered access," only to have "the Israeli police refuse ... to allow such entry claiming they had orders to that effect."

Serry expressed "dismay" over the incident, adding, "I call on all parties to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshippers of all faiths and refraining from provocations, not least during the religious holidays."

Yet Israel's government saw the matter in a different light.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor -- in a message retweeted by Israel Defense Forces spokesman Peter Lerner -- said, "UN envoy #RobertSerry shows poor judgment in fabricating an incident out of a non-event, mishandling sensitive issue of religious freedom."

Palmor told the Jerusalem Post that police were acting to limit the number of those packed into the church and the narrow streets around it, dismissing what happened as "a micro-incident."

This incident is not Serry's first run-in with authorities: The U.N. envoy said he was threatened by armed men in Crimea, which broke away from Ukraine and joined Russia.

Whatever its origins or conclusions, Saturday's ordeal did not prevent other activities in and around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where many Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.

On Saturday, the church once again was home to the Holy Fire ceremony, including the sight of dozens of people holding candles or small torches.

CNN's Kareem Khadder reported from Jerusalem; Greg Botelho wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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