JERUSALEM - Many of the faithful believe that this ancient city is halfway to heaven, and the mourners gathered last night despite the weather that was cold and wet and miserable.
Bundled in winter coats, about 1,000 people threaded their way through the damp stone alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City, paying homage to Pope John Paul II by retracing the fabled path Jesus took to his Crucifixion.
Clutching candles, praying, sometimes singing hymns and sometimes walking in silence, the crowd of pilgrims and local Christians made its way down the darkened streets of the Way of Sorrows, the Via Dolorosa, in the Old City shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews.
It was a fitting tribute, participants said, to a pope who worked tirelessly to unite people of all faiths and beliefs, and pushed Israelis and Palestinians to find a peaceful solution to their differences.
"He had a personality that brought people together," said Giovanni Ambar, 32, a Palestinian Christian living in East Jerusalem.
In 1993, Pope John Paul established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. In 2000, he became the first pope to visit Israel and the West Bank, praying at the Western Wall and meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The pope sometimes angered the Israelis, as when he spoke out against Israel's construction of the separation barrier, the concrete and electronic fences dividing Israel from the West Bank.
Yesterday, leaders from both sides of conflict praised the pope.
"Pope John Paul II was a man of peace and friend of the Jewish people who was familiar with the uniqueness of the Jewish people and who worked for an historic reconciliation between the peoples," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said during his weekly Cabinet meeting.
"We will miss him as a distinguished religious figure who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom and equality," said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, hundreds of tourists, pilgrims and parishioners flocked to the Church of the Nativity and squeezed into the pews for Sunday Mass.
The Rev. Dides Marwan of St. Catherine's, a Franciscan church in the Nativity compound, placed a photo of the pope below the altar during the opening of the service and used his sermon to celebrate the pope's legacy as a peacemaker seeking friendship with the Palestinians.
"He stood with the Palestinian people, and he also stood against war, especially the war in Iraq. He broke the ice between the Catholic Church and all the churches. He called for the unification of all the churches," Marwan said.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the Holy Land, has seen an exodus of Christians in recent years because of violence, a sluggish economy and problems created by the Israeli separation barrier. Many of the Christians left behind worry that if the trend continues, some of the holiest churches in Christianity will lose so many members that they will become little more than museums.
Many Palestinians said yesterday that they would always remember the pope's efforts to encourage Christians to stay in the Holy Land.
Saleh Sayeh, 32, a member of the chorus at St. Catherine's in Bethlehem, said the pope was instrumental in developing affordable housing for young Palestinian Christian couples in Bethlehem so that they would not move away.
"He loved the youth of the church. He helped us here," Sayeh said.
The Rev. Amjad Sabbara, pastor of St. Catherine's, said he admired the pope's willingness to speak out against Israel's barrier, which has caused hardships for the people living in Bethlehem.
"He didn't want people to build walls; he wanted them to build bridges," Sabbara said.
Many people in Jerusalem agreed that no one better demonstrated how to span the world's divides than John Paul.
"He is the symbol of peace in the universe," said Joseph Tabash, a crafts dealer on Bethlehem's Manger Square.
"We love the pope," said Fadi Nowisser, 18, his fingers covered in candle wax after finishing last night's procession. "We pray the new pope will be just like him."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun