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Worshippers pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, during the Easter Sunday mass on March 31, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM: Christians celebrated a grim Easter in Gaza and Jerusalem Sunday, with the tiny Catholic community in the war-torn Palestinian territory holding their vigil service as fighting raged on outside.

Around 100 people gathered by candlelight on Saturday night at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City in the famine-threatened north to mark the resurrection, when Christians believe Christ rose from the dead.

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The church is a short drive from Al Shifa hospital where heavy combat has been raging for two weeks between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters.

The atmosphere in Jerusalem was equally heavy, with few people at the sacred sites which are usually crowded at Easter.

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Even the main Catholic Easter Sunday service at the Holy Sepulchre Church - built on what is said be the tomb of Jesus - was not full.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, led worshippers who bowed down and kissed the marble slab where Christians believe Christ’s body was anointed after he was taken down from the cross.

Sister Angelica, an Italian nun from Perugia, said she was heartbroken to see so few people at the ancient church, regarded as Christianity’s holiest shrine.

“We were so few. It breaks my heart. But we are like the first Christians, they were few too.”

She said pilgrims were staying away because of the “suffering and death (in Gaza)”.

Never seen so quiet

With pilgrims prostrating themselves on the marble stone, she said most years there was a crush even to get into the square in front of the Holy Sepulchre Church.

“Look, how (this year) it is empty, even inside,” she told AFP.

Mother and daughter Kasia, 33, and Ewa, 60, from Warsaw in Poland - veterans of 10 Holy Land pilgrimages - said they had never seen the sacred shrines so quiet.

“It is no wonder with the war,” said Kasia, who spoke on condition her full name not be published. “It is terrible. They are killing children (in Gaza). It is so wrong.”

A Nigerian Pentecostal pastor from Agege near Lagos said the war would had not put him off staying for a month.

But he admitted that in 30 years of visits he had never seen “the Holy City so empty. There were more priests than people in the Holy Sepulchre Church on Holy Thursday. People are afraid”.

Shopkeeper George Habib in the Old City said Easter - usually his busiest period - “is a disaster”.

“There is no one here. It is worse than Covid... It feels that this war is never going to end.”

The war between Israel and Hamas has destroyed swathes of the besieged Gaza Strip, including hospitals and other vital infrastructure.

It began with Hamas’s October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,782 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.