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Violence clouds Jerusalem celebrations

Fewer people took part in this year's celebrations
Fewer people took part in this year's celebrations  

JERUSALEM -- Bowed down by crosses and carrying candles, Christian pilgrims Friday retraced Jesus's walk to crucifixion in subdued Holy Land Easter celebrations.

Protected by heavier-than-usual security because of recent Israeli-Palestinian violence, the Good Friday religious parade is the one day each year when Christianity takes the spotlight in a historic location also revered by Jews and Muslims.

However the numbers were dramatically down on previous years because of the violence.

"Fewer people and they don't seem as carried away as in other years," said a coffee shop waiter.

Devout Christians have braved wars and ruthless rulers for nearly 2,000 years to make the pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa in the old quarter of Arab East Jerusalem.

Images of Holy Week celebrations around the world
graphic Recent acts of violence in the Middle East:
 • Bombings
 • Activist deaths

Grouped in main Christian religions -- from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Protestant -- as well as individuals, the pilgrims shuffled jammed together down the narrow cobbled alleyway where the 14 Stations of the Cross lie.

The stations mark the places where Jesus was scourged, stumbled and crowned with thorns.

The journey starts at the prison -- now a church -- where Jesus was taken after the Last Supper.

In one of the many historical ironies of the journey, the seven-month-old Palestinian uprising flared just yards from the end of the walk at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.

Surrounded by armed guards, Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon, now Israeli prime minister, on September 28 visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a site also sacred to Jews because it is the location of Temple Mount.

Wooden crosses, from six-foot and longer ones carried by an individual or groups of men to small crosses clutched in the hands of elderly women, dotted the snaking line of thousands of pilgrims.

man carrying cross
Thousands made their way along the route  

The most dramatic enactment was a man, bare from the waist up, with red paint spattering his body to resemble blood, dragging a lengthy cross.

With a crown of thorns on his head, he was guarded by men dressed as Roman soldiers carrying whips.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry said the number of foreign tourists visiting over the Easter period was about half of the three million expected before the violence broke out.

Visitors from Italy and Germany were down by about 70 percent while there was a 50 percent fall in tourists from the United States.

"Usually at Easter we have pilgrims who come from Cyprus and from Greece, yearly about 10,000 people. This year only 300 people so it's very, very bad, it's terrible -- the worst we have ever seen in our life," said Ziad Hashima, a souvenir shop owner on the Via Dolorosa.

Restaurant owner Jacir Hanna's reservations book for Good Friday is blank this year, compared to more than 100 diners scribbled in for last year's Easter. "This year it is zero. The reason is the uprising," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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