Reporter's notebook'The political story is separate from the religious one'

In a still Jerusalem Old City, Easter pilgrims pray for peace amid fears of war

Undeterred by the conflict keeping most away, a few hardy Christian worshipers from Israel and abroad experience the holiday under unusual circumstances

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Bella Simanjuntak, left, and Hannah Benyamin walk up Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Bella Simanjuntak, left, and Hannah Benyamin walk up Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem Old City’s Via Dolorosa was unusually quiet on Easter Sunday, as Bella Simanjuntak and two friends ascended the famous alleyway where Jesus Christ is believed to have been marched on his way to being crucified.

Simanjuntak and her friends — all agriculture students from Indonesia — are among the relatively few pilgrims undeterred by the war and related friction from making the Jerusalem pilgrimage, where they prayed for peace.

Like several other pilgrims interviewed for this article, Simanjuntak said she felt safe, inspired and fortunate to experience the Christian sites of the Old City without the crowds that usually occur here.

“I feel a mix of joy, gratitude and, of course, deep sorrow for Jesus Christ and how he suffered right here,” said Simanjuntak, who comes from the city of Ambon in the province of Maluku in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country where only 11% of the population are Christians.

Simanjuntak, 26, came to study agriculture in the Arava region in Israel’s south in 2023, just before war erupted when Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 253 on October 7, prompting Israel to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

“Our government offered to bring us back, and we all said no,” she said of the 100-odd members of her delegation from Indonesia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. “Our visas would have expired, and it’s a very long process to get a new one. So we just stayed and it has been ok,” Simanjuntak said.

Catholic worshipers take part in a Good Friday procession following Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 29, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s Good Friday procession, which kicks off the three-day holiday of Easter commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating his resurrection, attracted a fraction of the usual number of participants to the capital. A crowd of a few hundred people, most of them Christian Palestinians, marched solemnly up the Via Dolorosa. Several men carried giant crucifixes as the participants recited and sang prayers in Arabic.

Ramadan, the month when observant Muslims fast during the daytime, coincides with Easter this year, contributing to the unusual stillness of the Old City because far fewer Muslim patrons go to the dozens of cafes and restaurants that dot the Old City.

Zaher from Tiberias and Christina from Austria, two Catholic pilgrims, were happy to find one open eatery — Celia, a kebab shop next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The location is central to the Easter story because it is believed to be where Jesus was buried on Good Friday before he was resurrected three days later on Easter.

Christina, who declined to give her last name citing privacy concerns, spent the past three months walking to Israel from Greece as part of a pilgrimage that she had been conducting, on and off, since she set out from Spain in 2019.

“I don’t feel any tension, actually,” said Christina, who added that, while she is Catholic, her main motivation for the pilgrimage was to promote peace.

Catholic worshipers take part in a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 29, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Zaher noted that many Palestinian Christians did not participate in the Easter festivities and events “not because they are afraid, but because they are simply sad. So they celebrate the resurrection and Easter, but on a smaller scale, at home or with family,” said Zaher, who also declined to give his last name.

But for Zaher, he added, “the political story is separate from the religious one, which is far bigger and eternal.” Zaher arrived in Jerusalem specifically for Easter, has participated in the Good Friday procession and is now ready to return to Israel’s north.

“I’m happy and grateful here, right now. I am also pained by the war, but that’s separate,” he said.

Simanjuntak draws reassurance from the Israelis she knows in the Arava and their conduct in Jerusalem, she said.

“People tell us we have nothing to fear in the Arava and also here, I don’t see people reacting in fear. When you see the locals aren’t afraid, it really reassures you as a foreigner,” said Simanjuntak.

Next month, Simanjuntak and other students are planning to visit Israel’s north, which currently is under frequent rocket attack by Hezbollah.

“We are not afraid. We want to see as much of the Holy Land as possible while we’re here,” she said.

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