Fewer Pilgrims Take Part in Holy City Rites This Season : Good Friday: Mideast strife keeps many home. Security is tight on a day of Christian, Jewish and Muslim observances.

<i> From Times Wire Services</i>

The Palestinian uprising and aftermath of the Persian Gulf War kept Christians away from the Old City of Jerusalem on Good Friday. Barely 1,000 pilgrims retraced Jesus’ footsteps to the cross.

Police wearing flak jackets thronged the walled city’s flagstone alleys as singing worshipers followed the Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

On Friday night, Jews here and around the world began celebrating Passover, and Israelis commemorated the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt by opening their homes to newly arrived Soviet immigrants.

This year’s holiday holds special significance for about 210,000 of the Soviet newcomers, who are celebrating their first Passover in the Jewish state.

Authorities canceled police leaves and kept Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip out of Israel and Arab East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, site of many Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places.


Security was especially tight because the start of the Passover holiday coincided this year with the Christian observance of Good Friday and Muslim prayers on the second Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Police here have had to cope lately with a series of fatal stabbing attacks by Arabs against Jews.

Elsewhere on Good Friday:

* Pope John Paul II heard the confessions of 12 pilgrims chosen at random from among the thousands who flocked to St. Peter’s Basilica. A teen-age French girl and an Italian woman and her son were among those selected, as were pilgrims from Japan, Zaire, Poland, Canada and the Philippines.

* Hundreds of activists marked Good Friday in Germany by marching for peace and disarmament.

* Men dressed as imperial Roman guards nailed 10 men and three women to wooden crosses and hundreds lashed their own backs in Easter rituals across the Philippines.

Here in Jerusalem, Christians were outnumbered by Muslim citizens of Israel who poured through police checkpoints for Friday prayers at Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine.

“I have never seen so few (pilgrims),” said Nayef Abu Mayaleh whose religious souvenir store had not seen a customer all week.

Instead of the thousands of foreigners of past years, only about 1,000 North Americans, Europeans and Filipinos joined local Palestinian Christians carrying wooden crosses in a procession led by brown-robed Franciscan friars.

Hotels reported that tourism, usually bolstered by the Easter holiday, was down because of the Gulf War and almost 40 months of Palestinian revolt against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.

The army banned all 1.7 million Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Israel at least until Sunday. The entire Gaza Strip was put under curfew, and Arabs also were confined to their homes in several major West Bank towns.

The moves were aimed at preventing unrest over the Passover holiday.

In Vatican City, John Paul II, wearing a dark mantle over his white cassock, heard the confessions of the 12 pilgrims for nearly an hour in one of St. Peter’s side confessional boxes.

The pontiff began the custom of hearing pilgrims’ confessions on Good Friday, shortly after his election in 1978.

Friday night, the pontiff carried a wooden cross symbolizing Christianity around the ruins of ancient, pagan Rome’s Colosseum in a candlelight procession. The traditional Way of the Cross rite took the Pope around the upper levels of the arena where Christians were once slaughtered and up steps to the nearby Palatine Hill.

Holding up the 6-foot tall cross, the Pope stopped for prayers at the 14 Stations of the Cross, each commemorating events from Jesus’ betrayal and arrest to his crucifixion and burial.

“On the cross the power of evil is overcome and hope springs anew in every suffering, persecuted, weary and despairing person,” the Pope said in his homily.

The Vatican’s Holy Week celebrations culminate on Easter when the Pope will say Mass in St. Peter’s Square and deliver his twice-yearly Urbi et Orbi (To the City and World) address from the central balcony of Christendom’s largest church.

Thousands of people are expected to pack the square for Sunday’s ceremonies.

In the Philippines, about 2,000 people watched men clad as Roman guards pound nails through the palms of 10 men in re-enactment of Jesus’ crucifixion outside San Fernando, 30 miles north of Manila. The men were raised aloft in the scorching sun for 15 minutes at a time on a small mound in a rice field.

Nearby, scores of men beat their backs with glass-embedded whips.

In neighboring Bulacan province, hundreds watched when three women were nailed to wooden crosses on a stage. Faith healer Amparo Bautista, 49, wore a white lace dress for her crucifixion.

“Let us ask for penance,” Bautista, a mother of four, enjoined her followers shortly before she was nailed to the cross.

Similar spectacles take place every Good Friday in towns and villages across the Philippines, Asia’s only Roman Catholic nation. Of the country’s 60 million people, 85% are professed Roman Catholics.