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Christians celebrate Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, striving to maintain presence

by Reuters Journalist

Christians celebrated Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, facing an increasing struggle to maintain their status in the Holy City in the face of the expansion of Jewish settlements and repeated acts of violence.

Hundreds attended the traditional procession on the Mount of Olives with palm fronds and olive branches that celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week.

"In Easter, we celebrate the feast of love and life. My wish to all is that love and life can determine our life more than the violence we are living," the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said after mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead.

The past year has seen a marked increase in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank with a tough Israeli crackdown imposed following a spate of deadly attacks by Palestinians in Israel.

Christians in Jerusalem have also complained of increasing violence in recent months, particularly since the formation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist-religious government at the start of the year, seeing it as part of a wider threat to their place in Jerusalem.

Israel has said it maintains the status quo of holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, where some of the holiest sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims sit virtually side by side, but Christian leaders have voiced growing alarm.

"What we are seeing is that what we call the status quo, the balance between the different communities – Jews, Muslims, Christians – is not respected anymore," Pizzaballa told reporters in Jerusalem last week.

"That aspect is problematic for me, that they consider Christians as guests. We are not guests. We are part of the identity of the city."

He said the expansion of Jewish settlers around the Old City of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives - both in the eastern part of the city which Israel annexed after capturing the area in a 1967 war - was increasingly squeezing the community.

"We are seeing that there is an intention to encircle the Sacred Basin – the Old City and the Mount of Olives – with settler presence," the Latin patriarch said on Friday.

But the pressure felt by the city's local Christians has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of foreign visitors.

According to data recorded by the Franciscan Pilgrims' Office, at least 261,353 pilgrims were expected to travel to Jerusalem this year, with visits peaking around Holy Week to numbers even higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Catholic prayers in Latin overlapped with the Arabic prayers of Coptic parishioners on the other end of the Holy Sepulchre rotunda, Miral Sedrak, a 22-year-old university student from Jerusalem, said the different Christian denominations had learned to come together.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming because every parish prays in a different area and the voices end up merging together, but it's beautiful," she said, as chants echoed in the background.

"When pilgrims come to visit, it feels like the church has soul. As Christians, our numbers are small, so when we see pilgrims, we feel part of something bigger, that we matter."

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