The Guardian – 5 April 2004
Yesterday a procession of pilgrims, each holding a palm branch, made their way up the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives from the Palestinian village of Eizariya, once the Biblical town of Bethany and home to Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.
The annual procession follows the route of Jesus’s triumphal journey to Jerusalem, where he would soon suffer the agonies of the Passion so graphically portrayed in Mel Gibson’s recent blockbuster, and is one of the final moments of celebration in the Christian calendar before Easter. Churches around the world marked Palm Sunday with their own symbolic processions and a final blessing of palm branches.
In the Holy Land, however, the pilgrims had a real destination, one little known to most Christians. They were heading for two neighbouring chapels – one Roman Catholic, the other Greek Orthodox – which lay rival claim to having been built over the rock where Jesus mounted the donkey that carried him into the Holy City over a carpet of palm branches.
The place is known as Beit Fagi, derived from a legend that when Jesus arrived at the rock-strewn ridge below the Mount of Olives he asked for food. All that could be found was the unripe fruit of palm date trees, leading Jesus to name the area Beit Fagi, or place of the unripe dates.
Although there is no mention in the Bible of the location where Jesus mounted the donkey, Christian scholars identified the spot hundreds of years ago. The first recorded mention of Beit Fagi is in the writings of Bernard the Monk in 870, and another monk, Theodorich, refers in his 12th century travel journal to a “modest chapel” built there.
Despite its long history, however, yesterday’s procession to Beit Fagi is likely to be the last for the forseeable future. As the pilgrims ascended a narrow path past Palestinian homes to the edge of the Catholic Passionisti Convent attached to Beit Fagi chapel they were greeted by a short but imposing stretch of wall, consisting of eight-metre-high concrete slabs.
On this occasion they were able to navigate round it to reach the two chapels. In a few more weeks, however, the section of wall will be complete and the route will be impassible – to pilgrims and Palestinians alike.
The concrete and barbed wire barrier Israel is building around the West Bank to seal in the Palestinian population and, it hopes, seal out suicide bombers, has finally reached the most sensitive part of its route: the Mount of Olives. Although the wall will be shielded from most tourists’ eyes by the Mount itself, it will lie only a few hundred metres from the old walled city of Jerusalem and some of the sites holiest to Jews, Christians and Muslims, including the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Bulldozers and cranes are well advanced in carving out the route of the wall across the the ancient stones of the Mount of Olives. Piles of giant concrete slabs lie stacked like dominoes, waiting to be lifted into place. According to local media reports, more than 300 ancient olive trees have already been uprooted.
The silence of the Catholic and Orthodox churches has astounded local inhabitants. Hossam Katishi, a 30-year-old father of three, whose home will be a few metres from the wall and its armed guntowers, says: “Maybe the churches are frightened of becoming mired in yet another public confrontation with Israel.”
He may have a point. The Greek Orthodox church has been in a long-running row with the Israeli government over getting official approval for its elected patriarch, Bishop Irineos. And the Catholic church is struggling to get visas for more than 100 staff, including priests and nuns.
Enham Shama, a caretaker at the Greek Orthodox convent, says she can hardly believe that the wall will bring the procession to an end with so little protest. “I can’t help but ask myself, what would Jesus do faced with a wall like this?”