JERUSALEM — Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem's cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate Easter Sunday at the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial.
Incense filled the air as Western and Orthodox pilgrims packed into the labyrinthine maze of chapels and crypts lit by thousands of candles as services were held at the grotto where Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead.
Women in shawls knelt to kiss the stone where Jesus's body is believed to have been prepared for burial as bearded monks in long black robes watched over visitors making their way through Christianity's holiest site.
"I came all the way from Belarus for the holiday," said Lana, 38, as she waited in a long line at one of the chapels. "I am so happy to be able to light a candle at this holy tomb."
The centuries-old church is shared uneasily by six denominations of Jesus Christ's followers -- Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.
In previous years Israeli police have had to rush into the church to break up fist fights between rival monks over alleged attempts to alter a delicate status quo hammered out over centuries, but this year calm prevailed.
The Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal welcomed the fact that Easter fell on the same day for Western and Eastern denominations, saying in his Easter sermon that "this year... our joy is double."
"Someone might be disturbed by the overlapping of prayers and songs... Yet this seeming cacophony, lived in faith, becomes instead a symphony that expresses the unity of the faith," he said.
Israeli police had stepped up security across the walled Old City during holy week, when thousands of pilgrims trace Jesus's final steps through its winding cobblestone streets.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld estimated on Sunday that 15,000 pilgrims had passed through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the space of just 24 hours.
Israel maintained a general closure of the West Bank imposed for the week-long Jewish Passover holiday, but the military said it issued more than 10,000 permits allowing Palestinian Christians to enter for up to two weeks.
Another 500 Christians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, about a quarter of the territory's tiny non-Muslim minority, were also granted permits to travel to Israel and the West Bank, according to the military.
The Palestinians have however complained of restrictions, including long waits at the hundreds of checkpoints scattered across the occupied territory.
"My family got permits to come to Jerusalem but they decided not to because they will suffer at Qalandiya," said Rimas Kasabreh, 34, a Greek Orthodox woman living in Jerusalem, referring to the main checkpoint outside the city.
Her family hails from a village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. "The lines take hours. It would spoil the happiness of the holiday," she said.
Jerusalem, with famed sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, has seen rising tensions in recent weeks following Israel's announcement of plans for new Jewish settlements in the mostly Arab eastern side of the city.
The Old City is part of east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in a move not recognised by any other government.
Israel views all of Jerusalem as its "eternal, undivided" capital, but the Palestinians have demanded east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the dispute over the city has paralysed US-led peace efforts.
In an Easter message from the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI called for a "true exodus" from the Middle East conflict.
"I pray... that in the Middle East, and especially in the land sanctified by (Christ's) death and resurrection, the peoples will accomplish a true and definitive 'exodus' from war and violence to peace and concord," he said.
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