- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) A thinned flock of Christian pilgrims singing hymns and carrying wooden crosses walked along the cobblestone alleys of Jerusalem's walled Old City yesterday, retracing Jesus' steps toward crucifixion in a Good Friday procession.

Only several hundred people participated in this year's ceremony. Thirty months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have kept many foreign pilgrims away, and many Palestinian Christians were barred from reaching Jerusalem owing to Israeli military travel restrictions.

"This is nothing like it used to be when thousands used to come from all over the world," said Father Simon, a Franciscan monk. "But I am always happy to see people recognize the sacrifice of Christ and his pain."

A few determined foreign visitors could be seen as the groups wound their way up the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, Jesus' traditional route toward crucifixion. There was a heavy Israeli police presence along the route.

"Today is the most important day. It was the last day of Christ," said an Italian woman identifying herself as Mauritzia from Milan, Italy. "We came and we see we are safe and protected."

Miss Mauritzia said it was her seventh pilgrimage, but in previous years she came with much larger groups. This year, only 10 persons were with her.

Tony Abyath, a 35-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, said, "The Lord speaks of peace, but there is no peace today. So it remains as a remembrance. As long as there is no peace we can't celebrate, only remember, the death of Christ."

Israel has closed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, citing fears of terror attacks over the Jewish Passover holiday that began Wednesday and continues for a week.

Setting out from the Lion's Gate of the Old City, small groups of Italian, German, Swedish, Philippine, Bolivian and English pilgrims made their way along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. One man carried a large wooden cross up the path.

Fourteen stations mark the events of Jesus' last journey, beginning in a courtyard where the Bible says he was condemned to die. Services at the Holy Sepulcher on Easter commemorate the Resurrection.

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