Christians celebrate Good Friday in isolation

Jerusalem is usually the vibrant heart of global Easter celebrations, but this year the cobbled streets of the Christian quarter are empty and silent.

JERUSALEM - On a sombre and quiet Good Friday in occupied East Jerusalem, the Vatican's apostolic administrator in the Holy Land called for prayer for people suffering and dying from the coronavirus.

"We are celebrating Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus, under very difficult circumstances," Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa said outside Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

He spoke briefly to Reuters news agency before entering the sandstone church's giant front doors. The church was closed to the public weeks ago, but was opened on Catholic Good Friday specifically for his entry for prayers and a service attended by a few clerics.

Jerusalem is usually the vibrant heart of global Easter celebrations. Last year, more than 25,000 people gathered near the Holy Sepulchre to attend Palm Sunday mass. Holy Week - which includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday - is the most solemn period in the Christian liturgical calendar.

This year, the cobbled streets of Jerusalem's Christian quarter were silent and its dozens of churches were empty for Palm Sunday on April 5. A lookalike of Jesus, with long hair, a white tunic and bare feet, praying with his bible on the steps of the church of the Sepulchre, cut a lonely figure.

Israel has confirmed over 10,000 coronavirus infections, with 92 dead from the respiratory disease. There have been 263 cases and one death in the Palestinian territories, mostly in the occupied West Bank. Jerusalem residents are locked down in their homes for all but essential activities, which do not include religious ceremonies.

Most Christians currently living in the Holy Land identify as Palestinian. The Christian denominations that share custody of the Holy Sepulchre face closures unprecedented in living memory, as do Jewish and Muslim leaders in a city that has sites sacred to all three faiths. Despite wars and uprisings, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has not been closed over Easter for at least a century, according to Palestinian historian Johnny Mansour.

Passover, Easter and Ramadan all fall this month, with Catholics celebrating Good Friday today, and Easter Sunday on April 12. 

Death has surfaced itself all over the world, Pizzaballa said, "so it is important... in this place, where this (Jesus's crucifixion) happened that we can pray (and) commemorate (it)".

Pizzaballa called on people "to be united in the heart, in the prayer, with all those who are suffering and dying."

He then entered the church, its large doors swinging shut behind him. Soon afterwards, the piercing sound of singing and prayers emerged from high up in an ancient courtyard atop the Holy Sepulchre, where a church was first built in the fourth century.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community. In the succeeding decades, Israel has built a number of Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem that are considered illegal under international law and seen as preventing the formation of a Palestinian state.

In ordinary times, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world retrace Jesus' steps in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. But this year, flights are grounded and Christians around the world are marking the holidays in isolation.

In Lebanon, Maronite and Catholic masses will be broadcast live with just a priest present.

In Rome, the torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum is a highlight of Holy Week, drawing large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and locals. It's been cancelled this year, along with all other public gatherings in Italy, which is battling one of the worst outbreaks. The virus has killed nearly 18,000 people in Italy and over 88,000 worldwide.

Instead of presiding over the Way of the Cross procession, Pope Francis will lead a Good Friday ceremony in St. Peter’s Square without the public.

In the Philippines, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism, masses and other solemn gatherings have been put on hold, including folk rituals that feature real-life crucifixions and usually draw thousands of tourists and penitents. The annual procession of the “Black Nazarene,” a centuries-old statue of Jesus, through downtown Manila, has also been canceled.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, nearly destroyed by fire a year ago, is holding a special Good Friday ceremony in the charred, gutted interior of the medieval landmark. But the event is closed to the public for two reasons: France’s strict virus confinement measures forbid religious or any other gatherings, and the cathedral remains too structurally unstable to let parishioners inside.

“We wanted to send a message of hope” through the ceremony, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit told reporters this week.

“The message of hope is especially important for our compatriots at a time when we are particularly affected by the coronavirus, which is sowing anguish and death,” he said.