| 19 April 2024, Friday |

Christians mark Good Friday as some holy sites reopen

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Christians in the Holy Land are marking Good Friday this year amid signs the COVID-19 crisis is winding down, with some religious sites open to limited numbers of worshipers but none of the mass pilgrimages usually seen in the Holy Week leading up to Easter.

The coronavirus is still raging in France, Brazil, the Philippines and other predominantly Christian countries, where worshipers are marking a second annual Holy Week under different movement restrictions amid outbreaks fanned by more contagious strains.

Last year, Jerusalem was under a strict lockdown, with sacred rites observed by small groups of priests, often behind closed doors. It was a stark departure from past years, when tens of thousands of pilgrims would descend on the city’s holy sites.

This year, Franciscan friars in brown robes led hundreds of worshipers down the Via Dolorosa, retracing what tradition holds were Jesus’ final steps, while reciting prayers through loudspeakers at the Stations of the Cross. Another group carried a wooden cross along the route through the Old City, singing hymns and pausing to offer prayers.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead, is open to visitors who wear masks and abide by social distancing measures.

Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, said “things are open, but cautiously and gradually.”

“In regular years we urge people to come out. Last year we told people to stay at home… This year we are somehow silent,” Abunassar added.

Israel has launched one of the world’s most successful inoculation campaigns, allowing it to reopen hotels, restaurants and religious sites. But air travel is still limited by quarantine and other restrictions, keeping away the foreign pilgrims who usually throng Jerusalem during Holy Week.

The main holy sites are in the Old City in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city its unified capital, while the Palestinians want both territories for their future state.

Israel included Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in its vaccination drive, but has only provided a small number of vaccines to those in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has imported tens of thousands of shots for a population of over 2.5 million.

Israeli authorities said up to 5,000 Christian Palestinians from the West Bank would be permitted to enter for Easter celebrations. Abunassar said he was not aware of any large tour groups from the West Bank planning to enter, as in years past, likely reflecting concerns about the pandemic.

Pope Francis began Good Friday with a visit to the Vatican’s coronavirus vaccination center, where volunteers have spent the past week administering some 1,200 shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to poor and disadvantaged people in Rome.

The Vatican City State bought its own doses to inoculate Holy See employees and their families, and has been giving away surplus supplies to homeless people. A masked Francis posed for photos with some of the volunteers and recipients in the Vatican audience hall.

Later Friday, the pope was to preside over the Way of the Cross procession in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square, instead of the popular torchlit ritual he usually celebrates at the Colosseum.

In France, a nationwide 7 p.m. curfew is compelling parishes to move Good Friday ceremonies forward in the day, as the traditional Catholic night processions are being drastically scaled back or cancelled. 19 departments in France are on localized lockdowns, where parishioners can attend daytime Mass if they sign the government’s “travel certificate.”

In the Philippines, streets were eerily calm and religious gatherings were banned in the capital, Manila, and 4 outlying provinces. The cabinet placed the bustling region of over 25 million people back under lockdown this week as it scrambled to fight an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections.

The Philippines had started to reopen in hopes of stemming a severe economic crisis, but COVID-19 cases rose last month, apparently due to more contagious strains, increased public mobility and complacency.