JERUSALEM, April 16, (Agencies): Christians are celebrating Easter across the Middle East, where many are struggling to maintain their embattled communities in the face of war, terrorism and discrimination. Thousands of worshippers flocked to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
This year the holiday was celebrated on the same day by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worshippers. The denominations, which jealously guard different sections of the church, held separate services one after another Sunday. Egypt’s Coptic Christians meanwhile marked a somber Easter a week after twin bombings by the Islamic State group killed dozens of worshippers. Many of Iraq’s Christians observed the holiday in camps for the displaced after fleeing IS and the operation to drive the militants from Mosul.
Visitors and worshippers filed through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It was the first Easter since the unveiling in March of renovations to the ornate, 19th-century shrine covering Jesus’s tomb following a $3.7-million project that restored its stones to their original reddish-yellow and reinforced the heavily visited site. This year’s holiday also fell on the same date for both Western and Eastern Christians, an irregular occurrence since they follow different calendars.
Masses were staggered throughout the day for the various denominations that co-exist, often uneasily, in the church in Jerusalem’s Old City. As mass was underway, visits continued, with pilgrims rubbing clothing, veils and even pictures on mobile phones against the shrine over the tomb and the stone where Jesus’s body was anointed after his crucifixion. Visits underground to the tomb itself were however off limits during masses. “It’s beautiful,” Michael Hanna, 64, a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt but who has lived in Australia since 1980, said of his visit. “You can’t imagine the feeling touching the places where Jesus touched. I can’t describe the feeling,” the postal worker said. Hanna also lamented the fate of Coptic Christians in Egypt, where two Islamic State group suicide bombers struck two churches on April 9, killing 45 people in the worst attack on Copts in recent memory.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, entered through the church’s heavy wooden doors to lead mass, stopping to kneel before the stone where Jesus’s body was anointed, then splashing holy water on the crowds. Tin Nguyen, a 24-year-old from Vietnam working as an intern at an agricultural centre in southern Israel, recorded the mass with a mobile phone and a selfie stick for friends back home since they may never have a chance to visit. “The spirit here, and the way people come here and gather together in (Jesus’s) name,” he said. “It’s soulful and peaceful.” Wajeeh Nusseibeh, 67, a member of one of the two Muslim families who traditionally hold the key and guard the church, said this year there seemed to be fewer people visiting than in the past. He blamed tough economic times and conflict, with Middle Eastern Christians under threat in countries such as Iraq and Syria. At the same time, Jerusalem also remains the focal point of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Holy Sepulchre is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed. Nusseibeh, dressed in a dark suit with a red and black tie, however was keeping the faith. “We hope to have peace next year,” he said as he sat before the entrance’s towering wooden doors, keeping an eye on those who entered. “And everyone accepts the other.”
Egypt Christians in sombre mood: Members of Egypt’s Christian minority flocked to traditional services this Easter weekend in sombre mood following attacks last Sunday that killed 45 people, and security was especially tight at the two churches hit by the bombers. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on Palm Sunday targeting Egypt’s nearly 2,000-year-old Coptic Christian community and has warned of more attacks to come. The militants are waging an insurgency against security forces in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, worshippers passed through a metal detector at the entrance to Saint Mark’s Cathedral, historic seat of the Coptic Pope and one of the two sites attacked last Sunday. Rafiq Bishry, head of the church’s organisational committee, said he was surprised that so many people had come to the services that mark the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ despite the increased security risks. “This is a clear message to the whole world that we are not afraid,” he told Reuters Television. Coptic Pope Tawadros had been leading the mass at the cathedral at the time of the explosion but was not injured. On Saturday, a soldier with a heavy machine gun watched from the top of an armoured vehicle near the cathedral. At the other bombed church, St George’s, in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, north of Cairo, masked soldiers with body armour and rifles stood by as worshippers were searched and also made to pass through metal detectors.