Christians celebrate Good Friday as holy places gradually reopen

JERUSALEM – Christians in the Holy Land celebrate Good Friday this year amid signs of the end of the coronavirus crisis, with religious sites open to a limited number of worshipers, but none of the mass pilgrimages usually seen during Holy Week preceding Easter.

Last year, Jerusalem was strictly closed, with sacred rites observed by small groups of priests, often behind closed doors. This was a radical change from years past, when tens of thousands of pilgrims descended on the city’s holy sites.

This year, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died, and rose from the dead, is open to visitors and awaits a few dozen. After the morning prayer service, they will retrace Jesus’ last steps along the Via Dolorosa.

In the Vatican, the events of Holy Week are celebrated in front of a limited number of masked worshipers to meet COVID-19 health and social distancing standards.

“Things are open, but cautiously and gradually,” said Wadie Abunassar, an advisor to church leaders in the Holy Land. “On regular years, we urge people to go out. Last year we told people to stay home… This year we’re kind of quiet.

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

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

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

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

Abunassar said most Christians in the area celebrate Holy Week in their local parishes. The Good Friday services in the Old Town are expected to attract only a small number of people, mainly priests and foreigners residing in the Holy Land.

Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press

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