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In Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians observe scaled-down Good Friday rituals

Despite ongoing tensions in the Middle East, Christians marked Good Friday in Jerusalem. Worshippers marched slowly along the Via Dolorosa - the cobblestone path that cuts through the limestone-walled Old City, where tradition says Jesus bore the cross to his crucifixion. (AP Video/Shlomo Mor)

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JERUSALEM (AP) 鈥 Hundreds of Christians participated in a customary Good Friday procession through the limestone walls of Jerusalem鈥檚 Old City, commemorating one of the faith鈥檚 most sacred days with noticeably thinner crowds amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The procession, which normally draws thousands of foreign visitors, was unusually local 鈥 mostly Palestinian Christians, joined by some foreigners living in Jerusalem and a few undeterred tourists.

The procession passes along the Way of the Cross, or Via Dolorosa, the route believed to have been walked by Jesus to his crucifixion. Squads of Israeli police set up barricades along the path, rerouting shoppers in the Old City鈥檚 bustling Muslim quarter to make way for hundreds of pilgrims.

A young group of Palestinian Arab scouts led the day鈥檚 procession, past the 14 stations, each marking an event that befell Jesus on his final journey. Hundreds of Palestinian Christians walked in their wake. Behind them was a small parade of the Franciscan religious order, composed mainly of foreigners who live in Jerusalem.

AP AUDIO: In Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians observe scaled-down Good Friday celebrations.

AP correspondent Charles de Ledesma reports a scaled down Good Friday takes place in Jerusalem.

鈥淲e wait for this every year,鈥 said Munira Kamar, a Palestinian Christian from the Old City, who waved to the cross-bearers who stopped to give her young daughter a kiss on the cheek. 鈥淥f course, this year we are unhappy because of the situation with the ongoing war.鈥

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Israel鈥檚 ongoing offensive in Gaza, launched after Hamas鈥 Oct. 7 killings and hostage-taking in Israel.

The impact of the war was clear at the procession鈥檚 final stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and laid to rest before his resurrection on Easter. There, instead of the crowds who normally queue for hours in the church courtyard, entrance to the site was easy.

The city鈥檚 streets were noticeably devoid of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the Holy City for Easter. Since Oct. 7, Palestinian worshippers have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

Despite the thinned crowds, shopkeepers, whose heavy metal doors are usually closed on Fridays, threw them open for tourists seeking Catholic memorabilia. But shoppers were few and far between.

鈥淐omparing last year鈥檚 Easter festivities with this year is like light and day,鈥 said Fayaz Dakkak, a Palestinian storeowner whose family first opened the shop in 1942. His shop stood empty.

鈥淯sually people are joyful today and kids are excited,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut when you compare children here who have water and food and a family to what鈥檚 happening in Gaza, how can you be happy?鈥

An estimated 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the U.S. State Department鈥檚 international religious freedom report for 2022. Approximately 1,300 Christians lived in Gaza, it said. Some Christians are also citizens of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians live in diaspora communities.

A few tourists braved the day. Carmen Ros, a lawyer who lives in Jerusalem, had managed to corral a group of pilgrims from Spain to visit the country for a religious tour. The group rested in the shade outside the church.

鈥淭hey were afraid of the situation at first,鈥 she said, 鈥渂ut I told them here in Jerusalem, it鈥檚 safe, we don鈥檛 have violence. We are close to Gaza, but the Christian people are not the target of terrorism.鈥

The celebrations coincided with the third Friday in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with worshippers once again flocking to the revered Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer. Despite fears the ongoing war would spark clashes at the revered Al-Aqsa mosque, Ramadan has so far been peaceful, under tight Israeli security.

Sister Harriet Kabaije, a pilgrim from Uganda who moved to Jerusalem three weeks ago to live in a monastery, said she was holding the people of Gaza in her prayers. She said she believed that peace could be achieved in the region.

鈥淢any people think that the war here is natural,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut when Jesus was in Bethlehem, it was peaceful. We know that people are suffering in Gaza so we carry them in our prayers and pray that peace can return to this land.鈥

Elsewhere, Pope Francis skipped the traditional Good Friday procession at the Colosseum in Rome, the Vatican said, to 鈥渃onserve his health in view of the vigil tomorrow and Mass on Easter Sunday.鈥

It was the second time Francis had skipped the traditional procession in his 11-year papacy, an event that St. John Paul II famously skipped just before he died in 2005. Francis had also skipped the event in 2023 because he was recovering from bronchitis and it was a particularly cold night.

In Spain, several Good Friday street processions were canceled due to storms that provided some much-needed rain to areas battling a prolonged drought. Seville鈥檚 brotherhoods were forced to call off the processions of their giant floats bearing sculptures of Jesus of the Virgin for the first time in over a decade due to bad weather.

In Chicago, hundreds of spectators flocked to the city鈥檚 Pilsen neighborhood to witness a Good Friday tradition 鈥 the 47th Via Crucis procession reenacting scenes from Jesus鈥 final days.

鈥淚t鈥檚 the story that we all know from when we were little kids,鈥 said Jason Rodriguez, a Pilsen resident and event volunteer. 鈥淭his reenactment drives home the suffering, the strength and the passion that our Lord had.鈥

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Associated Press writers Teresa Crawford in Chicago, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Joseph Wilson in Madrid contributed to this report.

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This story corrects that this is the second time that Francis skipped the procession.

Frankel is an Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem.