Christians gather in Jerusalem to mark Easter

Image: Catholic clergy in a procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Catholic clergy take part in a procession during Easter Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday. Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pilgrims thronged Christian holy sites in Jerusalem on Sunday, braving a heightened security alert to celebrate Easter in the city where they believe Jesus was resurrected on this day two millennia ago.

In the walled Old City, hundreds of believers escaped the stifling temperatures of an unseasonable heat wave and filled the cool, dark rooms of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The odor of incense wafted from the church doors into the courtyard outside.

Ahead of the weekend, security forces deployed thousands of officers nationwide to secure events connected with Easter and the Jewish festival of Purim. The alert was also high because of Israeli concerns about a possible revenge attack for the assassination of a Hezbollah commander last month in Syria.

Israel denied involvement, but Hezbollah has blamed the Jewish state and threatened to avenge his death with an attack on Israeli targets.

On March 6, a Palestinian gunman killed eight young students at a Jerusalem rabbinical seminary, the first major attack in the city in four years.

'Special, mystic and spiritual'
Jeri Minasy, 59, a retired flight attendant from Newnan, Georgia, said the recent violence couldn't deter her from spending Easter in Jerusalem. She called the experience "special, mystic and spiritual."

But she wondered what Jesus would think about the bloodshed. "I think he would be appalled that people can't get along. He would be crying," Minasy said.

Many visitors to the church were visibly moved. Some sang hymns near a small stone structure adorned with candles that marks what is traditionally held to be the site of Jesus' tomb.

The Roman Catholic Church's leader in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, led a procession of clergymen through the church. Wearing white-and-gold robes and holding a silver staff, Sabbah chanted hymns in Latin as he circled the structure.

Tamera Perry, 39, a high school teacher from Silver City, New Mexico, said she planned to videotape the Easter Mass and send it over the Internet to her church at home, where it would be shown on a projector at the Easter service.

She hoped to transmit something of the experience of being in Jerusalem for the holiday, Perry said.

"I get a real sense of the surroundings here, being where Jesus walked and walking the hills that he walked," she said.

Worshippers rejoice
Not all believers chose to mark Easter at the Holy Sepulcher. Some Protestants venerate a spot outside the Old City known as the Garden Tomb as the site of Jesus' burial, and groups gathered there early Sunday to sing songs accompanied by a rock band. Some raised their hands and swayed to the music.

"We can say that resurrection day was the happiest day in history," Peter Wells, the site's chaplain, told the crowd, speaking at a podium bearing the words, "Jesus Is Alive."

"So once again, the Lord is risen," Wells said, and the assembled believers answered in unison: "The Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah!"

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in Jerusalem on Sunday, marked Easter with a service at the U.S. consulate before setting out for a day of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.