JERUSALEM, April 23 (AP)--The predicted crush of thousands of pilgrims jamming the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher for millennium Easter Mass did not materialize Sunday, and the few hundred who came were distracted by a competing service nearby.

Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, celebrated Mass in front of the ornate, carved stone tomb of Jesus in the center of the church, built in the walled Old City of Jerusalem on the traditional site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified.

Behind the tomb, Orthodox Christians chanted different prayers, marking Palm Sunday. The Orthodox calendar is a week behind the Latin calendar.

Sitting on a step between two imposing marble columns across from the tomb, listening to the Latin choir as a procession of Orthodox priests walked by, Leah DelaRosa, 16, from San Bernardino, California, said, "It's confusing. There are so many different masses going on."

Celebrating Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher means standing near the tomb in a crowd of people from all over the world, straining to hear the Mass. A church organ and choir, hidden from view, accompanied the ceremony.

As Sabbah spoke, the Orthodox Palm Sunday prayers hit their stride, drowning out his words.

Father Patrick Hussey, 63, from the St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio, smiled as he talked about the competition. There was "a little bit of friction," he said, "but it's all joyful."

The massive, block-like church was built in the fourth century to mark the final stations along the last journey of Jesus in Jerusalem. An open stepladder stood across from the only entrance, a sign of constant renovations in the old building.

A wide corridor leads in a circle from the tomb around the rest of the church, passing small chapels and large icons darkened and cracked with age. A faint whiff of incense pervades the structure. Hanging lights of silver fail to dispel the characteristic darkness. The only sunlight enters through a small window at the top of the dome over the tomb.

Predicting a flood of tourists and pilgrims overrunning the church during millennium observances, Israeli officials pressed church leaders to open an emergency exit. But the different churches controlling the building could not agree, and only one door serves all.

It has turned out to be unnecessary so far. Except for last month, when Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land, the number of tourists in the Old City is "about the same as every year," said Abed Abdi, selling a trinket to a tourist in his souvenir shop near the church.

Experts say this might or might not be the site of the crucifixion. "I really don't have the feeling that this building is where it really happened," said Tim Steger, 30, from Los Angeles, adding, "it doesn't really matter to me whether I'm standing on the exact spot or not."

Easter services started at sunrise and proceeded through the day just outside the Old City at the Garden Tomb, a site favored by most Protestants as the burial spot of Jesus, though there is less archeological evidence that it is authentic.

Rock gardens stretch out from an opening in a natural wall at one end of the site. Pastors take turns leading services in several languages, their words amplified by a sound system, allowing worshippers to take part.

Craig Price, a pastor from Visalia, Calif., said the Garden Tomb "fits more of a biblical description for me" than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus