Christians In The Middle East Celebrate Easter Amid War, Violence

JERUSALEM (AP) — Christians celebrated Easter on Sunday across the Middle East, where many are struggling to maintain their embattled communities in the face of war, religious violence and discrimination.

Thousands of worshippers flocked to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

This year the holiday was celebrated on the same day by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worshippers. The denominations, which jealously guard different sections of the church, held separate services one after another.

The church is located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Worshippers lined up to admire the edicule, the chamber that tradition says marks Jesus’ tomb. A Greek restoration team recently completed a historic renovation of the spot.

The limestone and marble structure stands at the center of the church — a 12th-century building standing on 4th-century remains. The shrine needed urgent attention after years of exposure to water, humidity and candle smoke.

A service was also held in West Bank city of Bethlehem, in the Church of Nativity, the place where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians meanwhile marked a somber Easter a week after twin bombings by the Islamic State group killed dozens of worshippers at churches in two separate cities.

Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II presided over Easter Mass late Saturday at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, with several government ministers in attendance.

Tawadros had earlier announced during his Good Friday sermon that, as mourning for the attack victims was ongoing, the celebratory aspects of Easter would be canceled this year, including the Easter morning reception.

Last Sunday, a suicide bomber was able to make his way to the front rows of a church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta before blowing himself up. In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, another attacker detonated his suicide vest at the church gate’s metal detector after being stopped by guards.

The Islamic State group claimed the bombings.

Many of Iraq’s Christians observed the holiday in camps for the displaced after fleeing IS and the ongoing operation to drive the militants from Mosul, the country’s second largest city. A number of Christian villages around Mosul have been retaken from the extremists since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched the operation in October, but few residents have returned.

Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority celebrated Easter amid high security after last year’s celebrations were marred by a suicide bombing that killed more than 70 people.

The bomber had struck in a public park in Lahore that was packed with Christians as well as Muslims. The attack was claimed by a breakaway Taliban faction.

Pakistani security forces said Saturday that they had foiled a “major terror attack” against Christians when they killed a militant and detained another in Lahore hours after Christians marked Good Friday.

Zubaida Amanat, who lost her 21-year-old son in last year’s bombing, said the violence had transformed what should have been a joyous holiday into an annual reminder of her grief.

“I just want this terrorism to end,” she said. “All I can hope is that no other mothers go through the pain I did.”

(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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