Pilgrims wishing to follow in the footsteps of Jesus to Jerusalem from the place where he raised Lazarus from the dead will soon need their own miracle, as the ancient route is about to be severed by the Jerusalem wall.
The cutting of the two-mile path from Bethany over the Mount of Olives and down past the Garden of Gethsemane into the Old City will end a tradition begun more than 1,600 years ago by the earliest Christian pilgrims.
"It is a great pity because we are all children of God," said Fr Eugenio Alliata, a Franciscan professor of Christian archaeology.
"To place a wall between two peoples who share the same connection with God is a backward step," he added, before hitching up his cassock and crawling through a gap in the wall.
"This is a place of great historical value, not just to Christians but to Jews as well," he said.
"The human cost for the Palestinian people who are forced to live behind the wall is enormous."
The 30ft-high grey slabs of the wall loom above the site revered as the place where Jesus performed the miracle of Lazarus, described in the Gospel of St John.
John describes how word of the miracle, which took place days before the crucifixion, spread to Jerusalem and many Jews walked the short distance from the city to see for themselves what had happened. Exactly the same route was already being used by 4th-century Christians who travelled in large numbers to Bethany, then named Lazarium in honour of Lazarus, for a service on the second Sunday before Easter.
One of the earliest written accounts of Jerusalem’s Christian life, written between 381 and 384 by a Spanish woman pilgrim, said the event was well-attended.
"So great a multitude assembles that not only the place itself but also the fields around are full of people. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said and likewise all the lessons are read."
Archaeological evidence shows that Bethany, east of Jerusalem beyond the Mount of Olives, was a thriving Jewish village at the time when Jesus stayed there on the way to his crucifixion. Evidence of ancient homes with ceremonial Jewish bathing cisterns was found when the wall was being erected in the area. The route of the wall was hastily diverted to protect the Jewish artefacts.
Today Bethany is a Palestinian town. Its large Arab population means that it lies beyond territorial boundaries envisaged by Israel to ensure that the Jewish state enjoys a dominant Jewish majority.
So Bethany and the other large Palestinian communities are left outside the wall, which follows a spiky route around eastern Jerusalem, including any large Jewish community but excluding any large Palestinian one.
The wall forms part of a much longer separation barrier erected roughly along the edge of the West Bank, territory conquered in the six-day war of 1967.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has declared the wall illegal on the grounds that it is being built on occupied land. Israel has long argued that it is a security measure to deter suicide bombers, but now the wall is being increasingly referred to as the country’s new eastern border.
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Thousands of pilgrims used to make the short drive from Jerusalem to Lazarus’s tomb but the wall now requires an hour-long diversion. When the border is formalised, pilgrims will have to cross an international frontier.
"Thousands used to come here every month and there was a good living for people selling postcards or polishing shoes,"said Mohammed Hamed, the caretaker at the Franciscan chapel next to Lazarus’s tomb. "But now we see maybe one bus a day. It is the end of our livelihood."
The wall has made life extremely difficult for thousands of Bethany’s residents who used to commute easily into Jerusalem for work and to visit the shops. As the wall nears completion in the area, they must now play a daily game of cat and mouse with Israeli border police patrolling the wall.
The land between Bethany and the Mount of Olives is so sacred for Christians that it is owned by a series of religious communities, including an order of Greek Orthodox monks and a Roman Catholic nunnery.
One route favoured by Palestinians jumping the wall cuts straight across the grounds of a convent and it is possible to see where an old cement wall has been rubbed smooth by the backsides of people dodging the patrols.
*this article was reprinted from the telegraph.co.uk