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(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thousands of Christian pilgrims filled the narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday, retracing the route that Jesus followed on his way to the crucifixion.
The pilgrims packed the Via Dolorosa, the path winding through the walled Old City where tradition says Jesus walked as he carried his cross on the path to his death. The processions all ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the site of the crucifixion.
Along the way, worshippers from India, the Philippines, Germany, Spain, Indonesia, France, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt and many other countries paused at each of the 14 stations of the cross to pray and sing. Some pilgrims kneeled down to worship in the streets.
Israeli Arab Christians were among the largest groups following the route on the Via Dolorosa.
"Good Friday in Jerusalem has turned out to be more special than I had thought. It's more complex and richer than I expected," said Patty Lund, of Oakland, California.
Each of the 14 stations along the procession route represents an episode of Christ's final walk as told in the gospels. The final five stations of the cross are all inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where many Christian sects believe Jesus was stripped, crucified, and finally laid to rest.
While waiting to enter the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims were patient and orderly, despite unseasonably hot temperatures, dense crowds and a delay in opening the doors for the Latin Patriarch's procession.
A group of Roman Catholics from Spain passed the time by playing the guitar and singing religious songs outside the church doors. Other groups waiting in the church's large courtyard sang, too, in a variety of languages.
Once they got inside the church, many pilgrims were moved to tears. Weeping worshippers knelt to touch and kiss the Stone of Unction, where tradition says Christ was taken down from the cross.
"It's so lovely. This experience touches me deeply," said Mariam Suleiman Riyad, who came from Egypt with her husband and a large church group.
Kyla Snyder, a non-denominational Christian from Seattle, Washington, said that spending Good Friday in the Holy City was "an amazing experience."
Snyder came to Jerusalem to visit Jewish friends for Pessah. "It's so neat to come here and see all these different nationalities," she said, "to see the way that different Christians worship Christ and celebrate Good Friday."
Crowds were larger than in recent years, encouraged by a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Although police did not have a crowd size for the Good Friday celebrations, the Tourism Ministry said 90,000 tourists are visiting Israel for Pessah and Easter this year, up 20 percent from last year.
The tourist economy suffered during the Intifada, which erupted in late 2000. But the flow of visitors has steadily increased since a cease-fire was declared in early 2005, despite recent tensions following Hamas' victory in Palestinian legislative elections.
The new growth in Holy Week tourism has been good for business in the Old City. Most merchants in the Christian Quarter had customers in their shops throughout the day.
"I wish every day was like this. I want to earn enough to build a hotel," said an excited shopkeeper near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, who dashed off to be with customers in his crowded shop without giving his name.
The atmosphere was also seemed to be calmer than in recent years, with the police presence lighter than in the past.
"This year, the atmosphere in Jerusalem is the most relaxed it's ever been," said Hans de Mol, a Catholic worshipper from the Netherlands who was on his third Good Friday pilgrimage to Jerusalem. "Three years ago, there was more military presence. This year, there's much less tension."
Other repeat visitors included a group of Californians who dress up to re-enact Jesus' final walk every Good Friday in Jerusalem.
A blood-soaked "Jesus" bearing a crown of thorns began the group's procession around midday. He was followed by Roman soldiers dressed in red and gold as he carried a large wooden cross to the Holy Sepulcher. He did not enter, though, since dressing as Jesus is considered blasphemous by sects within the church.
There will be more processions through the Old City next week when Orthodox Christians, who follow a different calendar than the Western Church, celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday according to their own tradition.