Thousands of Jews throng prayer ceremony in Jerusalem as Israel marks Passover festival

Jewish men take part in the Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) during the Passover holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 25, 2016.
Jewish men take part in the Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) during the Passover holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 25, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Thousands of Jewish worshippers attended a prayer ceremony at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Monday (April 25) as Israel marked the week-long Passover festival amid increased surveillance over tensions with Palestinians.

The Wall's administrators said that 50,000 people crammed into the vast square in front of the wall to be blessed simultaneously by hundreds of men believed to be descendants of the ancient Jewish priestly caste the Cohanim, who wore prayer shawls draped across their heads and shoulders.

"May God bless and protect you, may God shine His face upon you and be gracious on you, may God turn his face onto you and give you peace," they chanted.

The blessing is said in individual congregations around the world during every morning prayer, but Passover in Israel gives the faithful the chance to visit the Western Wall for a mass blessing rite.

Israeli security forces were heavily deployed in and around Jerusalem's Old City.

The wall is located below the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city occupied and later annexed by Israel.

The compound is the third holiest place in Islam.

Jews also revere the site as Temple Mount, the site of two ancient Jewish temples, the first of which the bible says was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the second razed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Jews are allowed to enter the mosque compound but not to pray there. They are permitted to worship at the Western Wall - the last remnant of the second temple.

The Israeli authorities fear that the festivities which traditionally accompany Passover, which began on Friday, could fuel long-simmering tensions at the Al-Aqsa compound.

Two Jews were expelled from the compound on Monday after "breaking the rules of the site", the Israeli police said.

Thirteen Jews were expelled for similar reasons on Sunday, the police said.

The Jordanian government on Sunday warned of serious consequences if Israeli "settlers" were allowed to visit the site.

In a statement, a Jordanian government spokesman demanded "Israeli occupation authorities immediately stop such moves, deny entry to settlers and Israeli forces into the yards of the holy shrine and allow Palestinian worshippers to enter the mosque".

Jordan is the guardian of the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, although Israel controls access.

The compound is a major issue between Israel and Jordan, one of only two Arab countries with which Israel has signed a peace agreement.