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Holy Week in the Holy Land: Easter in Jerusalem Amid Coronavirus

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed to the public for the first time in nearly seven centuries – since 1349, during an outbreak of plague.
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April 11, 2020
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – APRIL 01: A woman lights candles during rituals to celebrate Easter Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City on April 1, 2018 in Jerusalem, Israel. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims have descended on the holy city of Jerusalem to attend activities to mark Christian Holy week from March 25 to April 2. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Jerusalem during Holy Week is usually filled with thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world walking in the footsteps of Jesus. But the Via Dolorosa will be empty this Good Friday before Easter Sunday – another victim of the coronavirus pandemic disrupting everything, including major religious holidays.

“Very devastating” is how the Very Reverend Dr. Hosam Naoum, bishop-elect of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem, described to The Media Line pilgrims not being able to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem for Easter.

On March 18, Israel announced that foreigners who are not Israeli citizens or permanent residents would not be allowed to enter the country.

Since so many people can’t make the trip to Israel because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, Naoum is bringing Easter to them. He has been streaming services from St. George’s Cathedral for the past two weeks on his Facebook page and will be broadcasting for Easter as well. Naoum said he has been getting about 1,500 viewers and expects more for Holy Week.

According to the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre, an organization created to provide practical support for the Christian community in the Holy Land, the Roman Catholic Custody of the Holy Land will be live-streaming services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other churches.

The church in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the site where Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, was closed to the public indefinitely on March 25. According to the Christian news site Aleteia, it was the first time in nearly seven centuries that the church was closed to the public – since 1349 during an outbreak of plague in Jerusalem.

David Parsons, vice president and media spokesman of the International Christian Assembly Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the organization has been going online more due to the coronavirus measures.

“As a ministry, as an organization, we really turn to Zoom platform to hold our meetings, to stay in communication,” said Parsons. “It’s just been very effective and helpful, and we even hold our staff devotions on there with communion.”

Christian families in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land who depend on pilgrims for their incomes are feeling the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The International Community of the Holy Sepulchre has set up an “Easter Hope” fund to assist these families with a target of $1 million. Churches have already contributed $150,000. The Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem is also providing hardship payments to struggling families in its congregations.

The Greek Orthodox Church, which has extensive property throughout the region, including more than a third of the land in Jerusalem’s Old City, has exempted all residential and commercial tenants in the Old City from rent for 2020.

“The churches of Jerusalem and all the Holy Land are doing all in their power to make sure that both the spiritual and the physical needs of their congregations, and the needy of all faiths, are cared for, in accordance with the public health requirements laid down by the authorities,” a spokesperson for the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre said.

Naoum borrowed from Jewish tradition to explain the impact coronavirus is having on the Christian community in the Holy Land, asking the Passover question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” but in the context of how the pandemic is making this Easter season different from other Easter seasons.

“During wars in this land or elsewhere, many churches had to close and many people had to hide but this has never happened in our lifetimes – quarantines in order to stay safe and to stop the virus from getting into communities,” said Naoum. “[That’s] why this is different. It is heartbreaking for many here to say their prayers and worship.”

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