Jerusalem Thousands of Christian pilgrims, the crowd swelled by foreigners taking advantage of a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence, waved palm fronds Sunday as they marched from the Mount of Olives into the Jerusalem's Old City to re-enact Jesus' triumphant return.
In Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians turned their Palm Sunday procession into a demonstration against Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion of Jesus, and Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection.
Pilgrims walked in the sunshine down the Mount of Olives and up the hill across from it into the Old City of Jerusalem. Priests, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, wore colorful frocks. Many of the marchers carried flags as well as palm leaves.
The large crowd reflected a restoration of calm in the region after four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Tourists from around the world joined local Christians for the walk of about an hour.
From 2000 to 2004 the number of Christian tourists visiting Israel dropped by one-third. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism projects an increase of 500,000 foreign visitors this year, hoping many will be Christians.
Most of the pilgrims were Israeli Christian Arabs from Jerusalem and Arab-populated cities like Galilee, Haifa and Nazareth, said Maurice Sbeit, a tour guide from northern Galilee ushering 20 German pilgrims through the procession.
An Israeli Christian and former Israeli army officer, Sbeit said, "This is a good chance for us to demonstrate our Christian faith and our presence as a minority group in this country."
About 118,000 Christian Palestinians live in Israel, while 48,000 live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Violence has dropped considerably since Mahmoud Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader in January. Last month, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to the bloodshed.
According to tradition, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as followers spread palm branches in his path. Palestinian children sold palm fronds to pilgrims for a dollar along the procession route that was lined with Muslim families.
Sami Farded, 42, a Muslim resident of the Mount of Olives, said he and his neighbors have come to the march every year since he can remember "to share in Jesus' message of giving peace and love. It's kind of an honor to see the procession of Jesus pass with people from so many denominations, so many countries," he said.