BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian Christians ushered in Easter Sunday with traditional celebrations in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City, although the holiday was marred by ongoing turmoil in the Holy Land and severe Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement.
Wadi Abu Nasser, a senior advisor to the Catholic Church, told Ma'an that several thousand religious pilgrims descended on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, held by Christians as the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
However, he said the turnout was significantly lower than in previous years. "It’s highly unusual," he said. "There was a drop in numbers mainly due to the instability in the Middle East in general, and the wave of violence here in particular."
The occupied Palestinian territory and Israel have been shaken by popular unrest and a surge in violence since last October, and tourism has seen a severe drop through the period.
This year's Easter celebrations were also marred by severe restrictions on Palestinian movement. Prior to this year's celebrations, Rector of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Jamal Khader, criticized Israel for historically preventing Palestinian access to Jerusalem.
"To have all those restrictions preventing Christians from celebrating in the holy city is not only against the freedom of worship, it's against the identity of the city itself," Khader said.
A number of Christians, including 850 from Gaza, were in fact given permits to attend this year's celebrations in Jerusalem, but critics said this limited concession came at the expense of Palestinian Muslims.
Hamma Amira, who heads the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs in Palestine, noted that Christians in the Gaza Strip had been given permission to visit Jerusalem just days after Israel cancelled a long-standing weekly trip for Palestinian Muslims from Gaza to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Israeli authorities said the Al-Aqsa visits were stopped because Gazans had not returned immediately to the blockaded coastal territory, as stipulated in the agreement, and they posed a "security" threat.
Amira said Israel's decision to now subsequently allow Gazan Christians to visit Jerusalem directly contradicted this earlier security concern, and he believed it was aimed at deepening a preexisting divide between Christian and Muslim communities in the occupied Palestinian territory.
"This happens all of the time. They are trying to play on our religious differences," he said.
Access to Jerusalem was also denied to nearly all Palestinian Muslims in the occupied West Bank through the recent Easter celebrations due to a full military closure of the area imposed by the Israeli military during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Over Purim, Palestinians were heavily restricted from visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, while Israeli Jews were escorted by police through the holy site.
Khader said Jerusalem ought to be open to people of all backgrounds. "It is a holy city that has holy places for Jews, Christians and Muslims," he said. "We can never be exclusive about the city and have it for one religion only."
Chloe Benoist contributed reporting from Jerusalem.