Easter dawned in Jerusalem with a sunrise service at the Garden Tomb, where the faithful sang hymns of the resurrection. This holy site seeks to recreate the setting of the burial place of Jesus according to biblical accounts: “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41).
Facing an empty tomb carved into a rock in antiquity, the congregation proclaimed that “The Lord is risen!”
A short time later, bells rang out in the narrow cobblestone alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, summoning worshippers to Easter Mass at the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The atmosphere in the cavernous church was mystical. Priests in festive robes chanted the Easter liturgy, as a fragrant cloud of incense rose into a golden rotunda, symbolizing the glory of the resurrection.
Pilgrims from all over the world gathered around the historic stone tomb believed to be the very place where Jesus rose from the dead. The ancient sepulcher has a fresh look: It was renovated for the first time in 200 years after the feuding denominations that control the site decided to bury their differences and allow the repairs in the name of Christian unity.
Pilgrims came from all over the world to experience Resurrection Day in the city where, according to the New Testament, the events took place.
“Being here where Christ was caused me to strengthen my faith,” Travis Cullimore, an American from San Francisco, California, told VOA. “It really provides a good perspective on who Christ is and what other people believe about Christ, and also it causes me to reflect on what I truly believe about Christ.”
There were also groups of Arab Christians in town, including Israeli citizens from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth and members of the Coptic Orthodox Church from Egypt.
“It’s a holy place and we are blessed to be here,” said Sam Nicola, a Coptic Orthodox Christian from Cairo. “We are very fortunate to be here.”
A week ago on Palm Sunday, ISIS militants blew up two churches in Egypt killing more than 40 people. The bombings, which were not the first, raised further questions about the safety and future of the dwindling Christian community in Egypt.
“I’m not worried, no,” Nicola sighed, taking a fatalistic approach. “Whatever happens is happening, so whatever is meant to be is meant to be. [Terrorist] incidents happen everywhere, not only in Egypt; it happens everywhere.”
Nor was he perturbed by the Israeli police and soldiers who were patrolling the streets armed with pistols and assault rifles. “We have normal relations with Israel and there is no problem for us to come here,” he said. “We feel very safe.”
It was a big turnout this year because the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches, which use different calendars, celebrated Easter on the same day. The holiday was a multicultural experience, and not only because of the different Christian traditions.
The Old City was packed with Jewish pilgrims celebrating the weeklong holiday of Passover, one of three biblical Feasts of Pilgrimage; and the Christians and Jews mingled with the Palestinian Muslim shopkeepers in the Old City bazaar.
“I think all the people have the right to believe in God in their own way,” said Michael Price, an Israeli who came up to Jerusalem for Passover with his family. “The main thing is to coexist and live together in peace.”