JERUSALEM – Thousands of Christians from around the world gathered at Jerusalem holy sites to celebrate Easter Sunday (search), marking the day with prayer and hymns.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (search), Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, celebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the skull-shaped rocky mount believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified.
More than 20 Armenian priests cloaked in black gowns and head dress followed Sabbah into the candlelit church singing the Lord's Prayer. The Catholic priest emerged from the Sepulcher with a flame and lit worshippers' candles, which gradually illuminated the painted dome ceiling erected in the Crusader era.
The Easter services underlined one of Christianity's doctrinal differences: Roman Catholics believe Jesus Christ (search) was buried in the Holy Sepulcher, while many Protestant denominations believe he was buried in the nearby Garden Tomb.
The recent calm in Israeli-Palestinian fighting has attracted many more foreign pilgrims to Jerusalem this year for the Holy Week than in recent years. But the numbers were still lower than the several thousand who used to come before the outbreak of violence in September 2000.
Karen Abel, 39, a secretary from Eclectic, Ala., was among the Protestants gathered at sunrise to mark the day at the site of the Garden Tomb. She said she did not hesitate to make her first trip to the Holy Land.
"Christ died here for our sins," she said. "I feel mighty protected by that."
Bix Baker, 53, and his wife Becky, 51, came from Minnesota to spend the Easter holiday with their daughter, who does consulting work for city officials in Ramallah.
Sitting inside Christianity's holiest church with his wife and daughter, the high school science teacher said his students told him he was crazy to travel to Israel.
"We weren't afraid to come," Baker said. "Things seem to be different now, but we would have come anyway because this is where our daughter lives."
Catholics arriving in missionary groups from Spain and France said they included the ailing Pope in their prayers Sunday.
As part of ongoing efforts to ease travel restraints on the Palestinian population, the army announced Sunday that as many as 8,200 Palestinians from the West Bank and 250 from Gaza would be granted daily permits into either Jerusalem or Nazareth during the Easter celebration.
However, with this year's celebrations coinciding with the Jewish Festival of Purim, the Israeli military imposed general travel restrictions on Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza from Wednesday through Sunday, steering many Christians away from requesting permission to travel to Jerusalem.
In Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, hundreds of worshippers prayed and lit candles. A few Palestinians inside the church called for the resignation of Patriarch Irineos I, the highest Greek Orthodox cleric in the Holy Land, to protest alleged property deals the Greek Orthodox church has made with Jewish groups trying to expand their hold on Palestinian neighborhoods in the disputed city.