By KRISTEN STEVENS
The Associated Press
JERUSALEM – Thousands of Christian pilgrims, the crowd swelled by foreigners taking advantage of a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence, waved palm fronds Sunday as they marched from the Mount of Olives into the Jerusalem's Old City to re-enact Jesus' triumphant return.
In Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians turned their Palm Sunday procession into a demonstration against Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion of Jesus, and Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection.
Pilgrims walked in the sunshine down the Mount of Olives and up the hill across from it into the Old City of Jerusalem. Priests, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, wore colorful frocks. Many of the marchers carried flags as well as palm leaves.
The large crowd reflected a restoration of calm in the region after four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Tourists from around the world joined local Christians for the walk of about an hour.
From 2000 to 2004 the number of Christian tourists visiting Israel dropped by one-third. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism projects an increase of 500,000 foreign visitors this year, hoping many will be Christians.
Most of the pilgrims were Israeli Christian Arabs from Jerusalem and Arab-populated cities like Galilee, Haifa and Nazareth, said Maurice Sbeit, a tour guide from northern Galilee ushering 20 German pilgrims through the procession.
An Israeli Christian and former Israeli army officer, Sbeit said, “This is a good chance for us to demonstrate our Christian faith and our presence as a minority group in this country.”
About 118,000 Christian Palestinians live in Israel, while 48,000 live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Violence has dropped considerably since Mahmoud Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader in January. Last month, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to the bloodshed.
According to tradition, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as followers spread palm branches in his path. Palestinian children sold palm fronds to pilgrims for a dollar along the procession route that was lined with Muslim families.
Sami Farded, 42, a Muslim resident of the Mount of Olives, said he and his neighbors have come to the march every year since he can remember “to share in Jesus' message of giving peace and love. It's kind of an honor to see the procession of Jesus pass with people from so many denominations, so many countries,” he said.
A discovery of Jewish graves in 1954 has caused biblical scholars to reconsider the route Jesus would have followed into Jerusalem as a “ruler of peace.” Jewish tradition holds that Jesus would not have brought his followers through a Jewish cemetery. However, since 330, the ritual procession has passed within 100 feet of a Jewish burial site archaeologists and scholars believe existed before the time of Jesus, said archaeologist Joe Zias.
Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem tried to recreate the journey from a different direction. Several hundred Palestinians set out for Jerusalem on foot, with a few riding donkeys, knowing they would get no farther than the separation barrier Israel is building between the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The march began in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, marking the birthplace of Jesus. A large banner painted in pastels declared, “They will not stop us,” referring to the barrier.
“As Palestinian people, we cannot move between our cities,” complained Ahmed al-Aze of Bethlehem. “We cannot go to pray in Jerusalem” because of the barrier.
Slabs of concrete 25 feet high blocked the way at the outskirts of the West Bank town, and the marchers walked past a site where workers were still constructing the barrier.
A line of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary police blocked the way at a checkpoint.
Israel says it needs the barrier to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out. Several have infiltrated from Bethlehem into Jerusalem, just three miles away, blowing up buses and a supermarket.
“It's not fair. All Palestinian Christians should have the right to attend this holy occasion; it belongs to everyone.” Sbeit said.
Israel plans about a dozen crossing points through the barrier, but only Palestinians with permits will be allowed to enter.
Bethlehem's mayor and residents complain that the route of the barrier cuts into the town, taking some of its land and isolating some Palestinians on the “Israeli” side.