At the Sixth Station of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, just a short distance from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, French pilgrims sang “Sang du Christ” in solemn prayer. They were some of the hundreds of pilgrims making their way along the ancient route to get to the church on Monday.
Koreans, Filipinos, Nigerians and others all were frustrated in reaching their final destination.
US President Donald Trump visited the church in the mid-afternoon, and the area around it was cordoned off to the public.
“It’s the weirdest tour I’ve given,” a guide said to his group at Damascus Gate as he apologized for the chaos. Not the usual chaos of fruit sellers and merchants foisting gold trinkets or crosses on you, but the chaos of deserted streets and police checkpoints keeping people away from the route.
Palestinians declared a general strike on Monday in solidarity with a prisoner’s hunger strike. The strike shut almost all the shops in the Old City, leading to an eerie quiet, as if the historic city had become a ghost town overnight. The few shopkeepers who remained were ambivalent about Trump’s visit. Some expressed tepid optimism, saying they hoped for the best. Only one man said he “loved” Trump, and thought he was great for the region. Another said the president’s decision to go to Saudi Arabia first was a positive signal.
Coptic priests who have a small church above the Holy Sepulchre were also optimistic about Trump. The US President has a warm relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Inside the church, posters commemorate 21 Copts massacred by ISIS in Libya in 2015. Egypt needs American support for its ongoing campaign in Sinai against the extremists.
There was confusion about Trump’s visit to the Old City up until the last minute. A diplomat from the US Consulate General in east Jerusalem was on hand at one security checkpoint to sort out issues. He was a visible symbol of the controversy in Trump’s walk to the Holy Sepulchre, the first sitting US president in recent memory to go to the church in a city where Israel’s sovereignty is contested by the international community.
Aaron Mann, associate director of communications and public engagement for Americans for Peace Now, happened to be in the old city as a tourist.
“[Trump] understands this is the most famous and longest intractable conflict in the world, and understands the prestige that would come along with real progress [toward peace].”
But he was concerned Trump is not familiar with the nuances.
Nevertheless, with “fresh eyes he might be willing to do things and take risks.”
While pilgrims and tourists were disappointed by the closures, and Palestinians willing to give Trump a chance, at Jaffa Gate dozens of pro-Trump Jewish supporters gathered to wish the president well. Most of the fans were Americans who had come to Israel, many of them yeshiva students donning kippot. Their enthusiasm for Trump fell on deaf ears as his motorcade whisked him through Jaffa Gate, unseen and unheard.
Trump followed in the path of Kaiser Wilhelm II and General Edmund Allenby, both of whom entered through the famous gate. After entering Jaffa Gate, Trump was met by representatives of the Greek-Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches who took him to the church, guarded by men in traditional Ottoman era costumes known as kavasses.
At the church, three choirs from the three Christian groups awaited as well. A priest outside the church said he was there to defend the status quo: If one church is represented, then they all must be. Instances like this were part of the religious and political geography Trump navigated on Monday.