Palm Sunday Celebrated

Pope John Paul II celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square before tens of thousands of faithful, urging young people to renew their commitment to Christ.

Many waved palm fronds, olive branches and pussy willows as John Paul was driven to the canopied altar atop the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.

The Mass, attended by a crowd that swelled to at least 50,000 people, marked the start of a week of commemorations leading up to Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

Six months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have almost wiped out the local tourist industry, dashing expectations that more than three million tourists would visit in 2001, a year after the Holy Land pilgrimage by Pope John Paul II.

This year the Palm Sunday procession was subdued, without the usual marching bands with their bagpipes and drums.

The number of pilgrims at the celebrations has dropped from 30,000 last year to 5,000 this year, said Wadi Abu-Nassar, a spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Most of the participants were Palestinian Christians or foreign Christians on missions to the Middle East. "Last year, pilgrims had to wait two hours just to get into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," Abu-Nassar said. "This year it is empty."

In Israel, the government estimates that about 20,000 workers in hotels, restaurants and other industries dependent on tourism have been laid off.

In the Palestinian tourist industry, the situation is even worse. Elias Naber, 25, who worked at the reception desk of a Jerusalem hotel, said he has not been paid for the past two months and finally quit his job.

In the Mideast, fresh violence between Palestinians and Israelis marred the Jewish Passover holiday and Christian Palm Sunday despite seasonal messages of goodwill conveyed over the echo of gunfire.

An 18-month-old girl was in critical condition after Israeli soldiers confronting stone-throwing Palestinian youths shot her in the head with a rubber-coated metal bullet as her family walked home through the village of Al-Khader, Palestinian witnesses and medical sources said. Al-Khader is near the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Christian pilgrims lined the streets of Jerusalem to celebrate Palm Sunday, the first day of the Holy Week before Easter.

Hundreds of believers waved palm leaves and sang as they made their way from the Mount of Olives along the Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre, which is revered as the site of Jesus crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said far fewer people were in this year's procession commemorating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem because of Mideast violence. Sabbah is the top Roman Catholic prelate in Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus' entry into Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion, when followers strewed palm branches in his path. Red-robed cardinals bearing palm branches led a procession into the enormous square.

John Paul noted that Palm Sunday is also the church's World Youth Day in years when the event is not held outside of Rome. He welcomed a delegation from Toronto, Canada, which will host the event in July 2002.

Pope John Paul II meets a young Canadian Indian wearing a traditional dress at the end of the Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter's Square.

"Dear young people, get ready to welcome the young people of the world to your beautiful country by renewing your own fidelity to Christ the Lord," John Paul said at the end of the Mass. "Until we meet in Toronto!"

As John Paul looked down from the altar, Italian youths handed over the 13-foot World Youth Day wooden cross to the Canadians.

Five Inuits from Nunavut chanted and played the drums to greet the pope.

The pontiff, who turns 81 next month, held up well during the nearly three-hour Mass, leaning on his silver staff. His hands trembled, a symptom of Parkinson's disease.

Later in the week, the pope was to preside over a Holy Thursday service, a Good Friday evening procession in Rome's Colosseum, a vigil service on Saturday night and an Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square next Sunday.

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