Thousands of worshippers held tense celebrations in Jerusalem Sunday, as Christian Easter coincided with Jewish Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, amid a surge in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Leading Easter Mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed “deep concern” Sunday over the flare-up in tensions sparked by an Israeli police raid on Al-Aqsa mosque days ago.
Israel has since struck targets in Gaza, Lebanon and most recently Syria in response to rocket fire mostly blamed on Palestinian militants, while separate attacks in the West Bank and Tel Aviv killed three people including an Italian tourist.
On Sunday pilgrims crowded into the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, flanked by heavily-armed Israeli security forces deployed following the recent deadly attacks.
Churchgoers were ushered through the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
“[I had] some doubt, taking into consideration recent events, but still I decided to go,” said 50-year-old Paulius Majauskas, visiting from Lithuania.
Near the church, thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered at the Western Wall for the traditional priestly blessing of Passover.
Judy Green, 60, said the blessing was “beautiful, very uplifting” at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.
“I feel that God will protect us, we’re all praying together as one people,” she said.
The Western Wall lies in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and sits below the Temple Mount, the most sacred site to Jews, known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif.
The raised compound is home to Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam and the focal point for Ramadan celebrations.
An AFP journalist saw more than 500 religious Jews enter the site Sunday morning under police escort while Muslims prayed nearby, without any clashes.
Muslims fear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government may change longstanding rules that allow Jews to visit but not pray at the Al-Aqsa compound, despite his repeated denials.
In recent years, the number of Jews visiting the esplanade has increased and ultranationalists sometimes pray there surreptitiously in breach of the rules.
Israeli police stormed the prayer hall of the mosque in a violent pre-dawn raid Wednesday they said was aimed at dislodging “law-breaking youths and masked agitators”.
Mahmud Mansour, a Palestinian Muslim, criticised the police actions.
“This is our place, we have to stay in the evening, in the night, and this is Ramadan — we have to pray,” the 65-year-old told AFP near the mosque compound.
The raid followed reports that Jewish activists were intending to hold a traditional Passover sacrifice at the compound — a process which is banned and which a top Israeli rabbi has moved to prevent.
The day after the raid, rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel, which the Israeli army blamed on Palestinian groups.
Israel then bombarded Gaza and southern Lebanon.
The Israeli army also said it launched strikes on Syria Sunday morning, after rockets fired from there landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes during more than a decade of civil war in Syria, primarily targeting Iran-backed forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, as well as Syrian army positions.
Israelis were also set to gather Sunday for the funeral of two sisters killed when their car came under fire in the occupied West Bank on Friday.
The mother of the two British-Israeli sisters, aged 16 and 20, was seriously wounded in the attack.
Their family urged “religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, people of right and left” to pray tribute to the victims during the funeral, which will be held in the West Bank settlement where they lived.
Settlements in the occupied territories are considered illegal under international law, a charge Israel disputes.
Hours after the fatal shooting on Friday, an Italian tourist was killed and seven other people wounded in a suspected car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv.
On Saturday, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man in the West Bank. The army said soldiers shot at suspects who threw an “explosive device” towards them, while the Palestinian health ministry said the 20-year-old suffered bullets wounds to the chest and abdomen.
This year the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 92 Palestinians, 18 Israelis, one Ukrainian and one Italian, according to an AFP count based on Israeli and Palestinian official sources.
These figures include, on the Palestinian side, combatants and civilians, including minors, and on the Israeli side, mostly civilians, including minors, and three members of the Arab minority.