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Christians mark Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, Bethlehem as COVID constraints eased

Masked worshipers parade from Mount of Olives to Holy City, in a happier and more populous celebration than last year; Christians attend services in the West Bank

  • Nuns pose for a selfie as they mark Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)
    Nuns pose for a selfie as they mark Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)
  • Christian worshippers walk in a Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
    Christian worshippers walk in a Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
  • People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Christian pilgrims take part in the traditional Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives, March 28, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Christian pilgrims take part in the traditional Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives, March 28, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Hundreds of Christians were able to celebrate the start of Holy Week on Sunday  together in Jerusalem and Bethlehem this year, a year after restrictions prevented in-person gatherings and celebrations.

Although the Palm Sunday gatherings were still relatively small and abided by social distancing measures, small congregations of Christians gathered in churches and at religious sites.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was open to the public and welcomed Roman Catholics to honor the day. Recognized as the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, the Jerusalem church is one of the holiest Christian sites in the world.

Later, worshipers marched in procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, following Jesus’ traditional route from 2,000 years ago. Among them was Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, center, holds a cross on Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

“Last year was a terrible Easter, without people, closed doors. This year is much better, the door is open. We don’t have a lot of people, but we feel more hopeful that things will become better,” Pizzaballa told Reuters news agency.

“The message of Easter is life and love, despite all the signs of death, corona, pandemic, whatever, we believe in the power of love and life,” he said.

Additionally, Christians gathered for Mass in the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Palestinian Christians clutched olive branches in accordance with Palm Sunday tradition, and sang through their masks.

Palm Sunday commemorates the day Jesus traditionally rode into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by cheering crowds bearing palm fronds, according to the New Testament. The day marks the start of Holy Week, which ends next Sunday with Easter.

Orthodox Christians mark Palm Sunday next week.

A year ago, Palm Sunday fell during Israel’s first lock-down, and celebrations were cancelled altogether, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Christian worshippers walk in a Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Although thousands of worshipers usually attend, only a handful of Franciscan monks and Roman Catholic faithful were able to celebrate. They took to the streets of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter in the Old City to distribute olive branches, travelling door to door and throwing the branches to Christians looking on from their balconies.

Last week, the Health Ministry reported Israel’s lowest positive test rate in nearly a year, despite the lifting of restrictions. These improvements are accredited to the country’s vaccination campaign, which saw over half of Israel’s population fully immunized against COVID-19 so far.

People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

On the same day, Israel reported the low positivity rate, six Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations filed a petition with the High Court of Justice to demand Israel act to ensure the vaccination of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including by handing over surplus supplies of its own vaccine stocks.

The statement said research has shown that there are 27 deaths every day from COVID-19 in the West Bank and Gaza, where the positive test rate for infections stands at some 20 percent.

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