Lagos — THOUSANDS of Catholics and other church denominations, yesterday, marked Palm Sunday in their different churches, holding masses and processions retracing Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago.
Palm Sunday marks the day Jesus rode on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem, while he was greeted by cheering crowds bearing palm fronds, according to the Bible.
The day's events began with masses at different parishes in Lagos just as the Catholic pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, was reported to have used the occasion to preach a message of unity as he opened Holy Week celebrations on Palm Sunday at St. Peter's Square.
Just back from a six-day visit to Mexico and Cuba, the 84-year-old pontiff on Saturday hailed the decision of communist Cuba to accept his request to declare Good Friday a holiday this year.
In a homily built on the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem the week before he was crucified, the Pope said the underlying resonance of the Easter celebration was the shared destiny of humanity.
He said: "Here we find the first great message that today's feast brings us: the invitation to adopt a proper outlook upon all humanity, on the peoples who make up the world, on its different cultures and civilisations."
Clad in a red and gold robe, the pope led the service before dozens of bishops and cardinals as well as pilgrims holding palm and olive leaves to commemorate the branches said to have been laid down before Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
The German pontiff, who celebrates his 85th birthday on April 16 and who has appeared frail, now faces an intense week of church celebrations.
Similarly, pilgrims marked the occasion in the Holy Land, holding masses and processions retracing Jesus' triumphant return to Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre--revered as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Several hundred worshippers and clergy lit candles and waved palm fronds in the dark, cavernous church.
"It's the holiest place in the world for Christians and it's important for me to come here at least once in my lifetime," said Etienne Chevremont, 49, a visitor from Paris who attended the Jerusalem Mass.
Visitors walked down the cobblestone alleyways of the walled Old City carrying olive branches, palm fronds and crosses.
A service was also held in Bethlehem's Nativity Church, built atop Jesus' traditional birthplace.
Late last night, the faithful were expected to march from the neighbouring Mount of Olives into the Old City behind a white donkey, following Jesus' traditional route from 2,000 years ago.
The day marks the start of the Holy Week, which ends next Sunday with Easter.
Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expected 125,000 visitors during Holy Week and 300,000 throughout April, when Jews celebrate Passover -- a five per cent increase from last year.
The celebrations on Palm Sunday, a moveable feast held on the first Sunday before Easter, mark the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday, the most important date in the church calendar.
On Holy Thursday, the Pope is expected to celebrate two masses in the Vatican, during one of which he will kiss and wash the feet of 12 men, in a gesture celebrating Jesus' humility towards his apostles on the night before he died.
On Good Friday, the day which marks the crucifixion of Jesus, the Pope will lead services in the Vatican before heading the traditional "Via Crucis", the torch-lit "Way of the Cross" around the ancient Colosseum in Rome.
Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and when the Pope gives his twice yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (the city and the world) blessing and message.