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Israel begins Passover in a closed Jerusalem


JERUSALEM -- Israel began its Passover observance with its police on alert and a closure that kept many Christian Palestinians from attending Good Friday services in the ancient city yesterday.

Authorities put extra police on the streets and told them to be on special alert for bomb attacks during the seven-day Passover holiday, which began at sundown last night.

Israel ordered all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to stay out of Israel, an order that kept thousands of Christian Arabs from attending ceremonial services yesterday.

"It's a problem. I sympathize with those Christian Palestinians," said Uri Dromi, the Israeli government spokesman. But he said, Passover is a time when hundreds of thousands of Israelis are moving around, going to their families. It is a time when the government feels it has a duty to provide maximum security."

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at the site where it is believed that Christ was crucified, was jammed with pilgrims yesterday. Dozens of Christian groups moved along the Via Dolorosa carrying 6-foot wooden crosses and sang hymns inside the ornate cathedral.

But few Christian Palestinians from outside Arab East Jerusalem were able to circumvent the Israeli roadblocks to attend the ceremony.

"It's terrible. This is a day that comes once a year, and they can't come," said Blanca Turjiman-Marcos, 25, a Catholic Palestinian from Jerusalem, as she emerged from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "We are missing lots of people from the West Bank."

"We are in a siege around the city, and all Christians should be allowed to join the procession," said Abraham Kandalast, the religious affairs minister of the Palestinian Authority, as he walked in a group carrying a 20-foot cross through the Old City.

There are an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 Christian Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, living among 2 million Muslims.

Most of the Christians are Greek Orthodox, who will celebrate Easter April 23. But about 12,000 are Roman Catholics who celebrate Easter tomorrow, according to Yacoub Nasr Amer, the "mayor" of the Roman Catholic community in Jerusalem.

Israel often tightens restrictions on movement of Palestinians during Jewish holidays. It imposed the current prohibition against Palestinians entering Israel after two suicide bombing attacks against Israelis in the Gaza Strip killed eight people last Sunday.

Mr. Dromi said the closure will be eased somewhat during the week to allow food, medicine and "a few thousand" Palestinian workers to go to and from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He said the closure is needed because "it works. We have a record of much more security during closures."

Israel also imposed an around-the-clock curfew on the 80,000 Arab residents of Hebron yesterday, where there are frequent clashes between Palestinians and the few hundred Israeli settlers living there under heavy Israeli military guard.

Throughout Israel, Jews finished cleaning their homes in a ritual to rid the homes of any traces of leavened bread, in preparation for Seder, the feast on the eve of the first day of Passover during which by tradition the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt is retold.

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