Christians gather in Jerusalem’s Old City for Easter amid Gaza war

“Who breaks the power of sin and darkness? Whose love is mighty and so much stronger? 

The soul-stirring melody of “Amazing Grace” filled the morning air, accompanied by the rising sun above the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem’s Old City. Hundreds of Christians gathered to commemorate the Easter holiday, which they believe marks the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

Multiple hypotheses exist regarding the location of the resurrection, with the Garden Tomb being one of them. Each year, it becomes a pilgrimage site for Christian believers during Easter.

This year’s ceremony started at 6:30 a.m. under the guidance of Reverend Simon Holland and Pastor Paul Keeys. A magnificent choir, led by Melissa Mott from King of Kings, accompanied the service. Attendees chanted passages from Scripture and sang, “Do you feel the world is broken?” with their eyes closed and arms raised to the sky.

But even as the prayer goers rejoiced, the morning was set against the backdrop of the Hamas massacre and the Gaza war, which has led to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians in the past six months. The Christian community gathered at the Garden Tomb on Sunday morning, predominantly Evangelical and pro-Israel, acknowledged that their prayers this year carried a weight of solemnity during such dark times.

Christians worship at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem on Easter 2024 (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)

“It’s Resurrection Day, and Christians worldwide celebrate that Jesus has risen from the dead,” Christian Broadcasting Network Jerusalem Correspondent Chris Mitchell told The Jerusalem Post. His network broadcasts the prayer service all around the world. And yet, certainly, there is a difference with the war and lack of tourism this year. I think for many Christians, there is a sense that they now, more than ever, want to stand with Israel, pray for Israel, pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Young adults such as Adrian Huizenga, studying biblical history and geography at Jerusalem University College, and Chloe Sparwath, who was in Israel as part of a Christian young leaders mission with Israel365, were excited to celebrate Easter at its historic location. However, they, too, acknowledged that their prayers carried a different tone and depth.

“It just feels so much more real, and my faith is deepened by being able to see and experience what the Bible talks about in the place where it took place,” Huizenga said. “It is a really awesome privilege, and being here has really opened my eyes to the context of Scripture.”

Huizenga was in Israel last year for the holiday and commented on how fewer people attended this year due to declining tourism and fear. Returnees estimated that the event was only half as full as the year before.

Sparwath said that at home, she would attend church and an Easter egg hunt, and for a Christian to be at the Garden Tomb on Easter is “really special.” But she admitted she could not help but be somber. 

“My prayers today will be different than they would have been on Easter this time last year,” Sparwath said. 

American officials at Garden Tomb

Among the faithful were at least two United States officials, Congressman James Lankford (Oklahoma) and Congressman Randy Weber from Texas. They were in the country on a diplomatic visit but spent their morning praying at the Garden Tomb – and were nearly speechless by the end of the services. 

Lankford told The Post that he found the morning a “deeply meaningful moment for personal worship” and valued witnessing people worldwide coming together to worship in the holy place. He acknowledged the challenging circumstances in Israel, marked by significant pain and grief.

“Literally, yesterday, I was visiting with hostage families, and just sitting with them as they grieve, and then today to be able to be here in worship – it is a mix of emotions and quite remarkable,” Lankford said. 

He stressed that the American Christian community continues to stand for Israel and speak out for Israel. 

“Many of us were shocked, quite frankly, that the United States abstained in the UN vote,” he continued, referring to the Biden administration’s abstention on the United Nations Security Council’s anti-Israel and antisemitic resolution, which some Jewish groups say could undermine negotiations for a hostage release. “We feel very clearly that we should continue to stand alongside our ally and continue to support them in any way we can as they push back against terrorism here.”

Weber expressed similar sentiments but called on Hamas to “call for a truce by surrendering to Israel and releasing the hostage.” He said, “Israel has been attacked. Israel is responding. Israel is God’s chosen country. So, my prayer today is that Israel will persist.”

Young Leaders Repent

As the ceremony came to a close, a group of 12 young Christian leaders sat on benches quietly behind some flower bushes and continued to study and pray. Their teacher, Donna Jollay, shared a message of repentance. 

“What is the first word that Jesus said when he came out of the wilderness?” Jollay asked the young group. “Repentance.”

She gazed around, extending her arms to encompass the land, remarking on the extraordinary nature of the Jewish return to the Holy Land as “a miracle of miraculous proportions.” Jolly emphasized that the Christians’ ability to pray at the Garden Tomb on Sunday was possible only due to the presence of Jews in Israel. She contrasted this with the situation on the Temple Mount, where the tour would visit later that morning, which is under Muslim control. She highlighted the restrictions that prevent Christians from freely and openly praying there.

Jollay then recounted the atrocities committed by Christians in the name of Jesus against the Jewish people, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Crusades and the Holocaust.

“Join me in repentance here at this place,” Jollay instructed. “We repent for all the horrific acts and mindsets and accusations and blood libels that are spreading around the world today.

“Let us be a light to the Jews,” she continued, “instead of bringing any darkness or shadow.”

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