Christians in Holy Land prepare for what they expect will be crowded Easter

Thousands of pilgrims retraced Jesus' footsteps as they celebrated Holy Week at the sites where Christians mark his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

A decrease in Palestinian-Israeli violence and the overlap of Christian calendars brought a wave of visitors to the Old City.

One of them was Herlind Vermeulen of Belgium, who timed her wedding to her husband, Wim, for the early spring so they could spend Holy Week honeymooning in Jerusalem. "This is the high point," she said.

Tourists virtually disappeared from Jerusalem when Palestinian suicide bombers began targeting the city after fighting between Israel and the Palestinians broke out in September 2000. In recent years, however, there has been a marked drop in attacks here, and tourists have slowly returned to the Old City, home to most of the holy sites.

Thousands of pilgrims began the celebrations with a Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, retracing Jesus' triumphant return to the city. On Good Friday, they will mark his crucifixion and death. On Sunday, they will celebrate Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, marking Jesus' resurrection.

The crowds were also larger than usual as five different Christian sects - with their different calendars - celebrated the Holy Week festivities on the same days for the first time in four years.

Taking a rest in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where most Christians believe Jesus was buried, Parisians Giullame and Anne-Marie Blaise said the Old City seemed more crowded than on any of their five visits since 1963.

Due to the influx, officials established a strict schedules for each denomination to conduct religious ceremonies inside the Old City, said the Rev. Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan priest based in Jerusalem. There have occasionally been scuffles during disagreements over access to holy sites.

Among the beneficiaries of the calendar was Said Samakiyan, 49, of Jerusalem, whose family typically cannot celebrate Easter on the same day. He and his mother are members of the Assyrian Church, while his father is an Armenian Catholic, his wife is Greek Orthodox and his children are Roman Catholics, he said.

Thousands of Palestinian Christians from nearly Bethlehem also come to Jerusalem during Holy Week.

Inaam Qumseyh, visiting with her daughter-in-law, said she was lucky to receive one of the visitor permits the Israeli government distributed to Bethlehem churches. Two of her sons, aged 30 and 32, were not so fortunate, she said.

Meanwhile, shopkeepers - known as a pessimistic lot - insisted they had the fewest customers in years and said only a turn in political fortunes would bring the crowds back.

"When there is peace, the tourists will come," shopkeeper John Attieh said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova