The many churches in and around Jerusalem provide ample opportunities for pilgrimage, walking the path…
During holiest week of the year, the Holy Land celebrates without pilgrims
For the first time in historical memory, Holy Week and Easter prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, will be bereft of pilgrims and local Christians celebrating at the holy site, though the liturgies will be held by a limited number of clergy.
Even during other times of war, siege and illness, the faithful have been able to participate in the ceremonies, said Wadie Abunassar, chairman of the media committee of the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land, but because of the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus, also known as the novel coronavirus, places of worship of all faiths — including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — have been closed following directives of the Israeli and Palestinian Ministries of Health in light of the global pandemic.
“This dangerous situation has not passed over the Holy Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem in which all sons of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, are raising their prayers to God Almighty. We are called to live this time in faith and confidence in the Lord’s mercy and his care for all his creatures,” wrote the leaders of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities, who are in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in a March 21 statement. In it, they called on the faithful to adhere to the instructions of the civil authorities.
They assured their faithful that religious celebrations would continue, and intensify, regularly within the basilica, although, to avoid spreading the virus, the number of participants would be limited to a few persons and the basilica would be accessible only during the liturgies. In that same statement they had also pledged to “be united spiritually in our aim to preserve the centuries’ long tradition of ongoing prayers in the Church even in these sad times when pilgrims cannot reach Jerusalem and local faithful are compelled to remain at their homes.”
The Holy Sepulchre, they said, is the “ultimate place of hope.”
“Inside the Basilica, the prayers … will continue … asking the heavenly Father the end of the pandemic, the recovery of the sick, the protection of the medical personnel, the wisdom for the pastors and the governors and the eternal salvation to those who lost their lives,” said a March 26 statement, which was signed by Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian. “We raise this prayer from the very place where, through the sacrifice of his own life on the Calvary and through his resurrection from the Sepulchre on the third day, the only begotten and beloved Son Jesus Christ, defeated evil, sin and death.”
Cancelling prayers ‘not possible’
With virtually no pilgrims in the Holy Land and local Christians under lockdown together with the rest of the population, there was to be no Palm Sunday procession retracing Jesus’ steps from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, though the Latin Patriarchate has requested permission from the police to hold a smaller symbolic procession with a minimal number of clergy.
In parish churches throughout the diocese, solutions have been found for the celebrations of daily Masses as well as for the Holy Week liturgy, Abunassar said, mainly through livestreaming of the ceremonies through various means. The challenge that remains is how to proceed with the ceremonies inside the basilica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the three different Christian communities might have celebrations in parallel with each other. Though they wouldn’t be within the same space of the cavernous church, they would still exceed the 10-person limit placed on all public gatherings.
The Christians leaders have sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin asking for a special understanding, which would permit the ceremonies to take place with the “minimal participants but the maximal prayers,” said Abunassar.
“We are in an evolving event, and every day the directives are changing. If we agreed on something last week, it might not be valid today. We do not want to be perceived as breaking the law. There are ongoing talks between the Churches and the Israeli authorities about Palm Sunday and all events of Holy Week. Everyone is trying to be creative to find a solution,” he said. “Some ceremonies may be postponed but cancelling prayers is totally not possible.”
For instance, he said, the Holy Thursday tradition to bless holy oil from priests across the Archdiocese of Jerusalem — which includes Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Cyprus — that are used in confirmation ceremonies will likely be postponed until the feast of Pentecost at the end of May.
As the Jewish and Muslim holidays of Passover and Ramadan also will soon be celebrated, the faithful of all three religions in the Holy Land are facing the reality that this year they will be unable to observe their holidays with their extended families or faith communities as they have been asked to be only within the nuclear family.
Missing the people
In the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Maronite priest Father Yousef Yakoub, whose wife gave birth to their third child two months ago, is feeling the separation both from his parishioners and from his extended family. His children are used to celebrating holidays with his large extended family, he said, and as a priest he misses the connection of prayer with his parishioners.
Father Yakoub said 300 people have been following the daily Masses he has already been broadcasting to his parishes via an internet broadcast system he had fortuitously installed in the church five years ago. Together with one of his parishioners, he has also been preparing a smartphone app that will allow people to follow the texts of all the Holy Week prayers.
Father Yakoub has also asked the local police for permission to bring in three members of his church choir so they can sing during the broadcast liturgies at the church.
“It saddens people (not to be able to go to church); they want to receive Communion … but also some sacredness is happening, and people are much more attentive in the way they interact,” he said. “They have become more attentive to the voice of God.”
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a set of pastoral guidelines to help the faithful prepare for and celebrate Easter, including recommending that parish priests distribute previously blessed olive branches and bottles of holy water to parishioners so they can celebrate Palm Sunday at home.
Apostolic Administrator Pierbattista Pizzaballa stressed the importance of praying as a family unit and urged priests to prepare materials that would help families return to this tradition.
Israel, Palestine on lockdown
In both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, all schools, shops, places of entertainment and sports have been closed, and all events have been canceled. Israel reported its first known case of the virus on Feb. 21, and the first Palestinian known cases were reported in Bethlehem on March 5, after several staff members of a Beit Jala hotel were diagnosed following contact with Greek pilgrims who discovered they had virus when they returned home.
The Palestinian Authority enforced an immediate and strict lockdown in the Bethlehem area, including the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, and the rest of the West Bank followed on March 22. As of April 4, there were 205 known cases of the virus, including 12 in Gaza. There was one reported death. Because of its overcrowding and lack of proper medical facilities and equipment — due to the 13-year Israeli and Egyptian-enforced blockade since Hamas came into power — the Gaza situation is particularly worrisome.
Israel, now in its third week of quarantine of the entire country, has reported 6,092 cases of the virus, with 95 people in serious condition and 81 on ventilators. As of April 1, there were 25 reported deaths.
Despite criticisms against Israel from some in the Palestinian Authority, international groups have praised the cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the crisis, noting the regular meetings held with representatives of the two, the Israeli training of Palestinian medical teams and the donations of test kits and personal protective equipment.
“Since the start of the crisis, the Palestinian and Israel authorities have maintained a close, unprecedented cooperation on efforts aimed at containing the epidemic,” said the UN OCHA in a March 24 report. In addition, they noted, “Despite longstanding tensions and disputes, there has been also continuous cooperation and coordination between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and the Gaza-based Hamas authorities, around efforts to address the current crisis.”
Tourism sector hit hard
In addition to the concerns of the virus spreading inside and beyond the three sister towns, which has been the epicenter of the outbreak in the Palestinian Territories, the greatest concern is for the area economy.
With between 17,000 and 20,000 people in the three towns employed in the tourism sector, and another 15,000 employed in Israeli construction mainly as day laborers, Bethlehem’s economy has been dealt a hard blow by the epidemic, said Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
“Tourism is the most important branch for our economy and basically for all the Palestinian territory,” he said. “In the coming weeks we will feel the impact. Life has been paralyzed in Bethlehem.”
Israel’s stronger economy has also taken a beating and some 1 million Israelis are newly unemployed, but the Israeli government is in the position to offer aid and grants to people who have lost their jobs and small business owners, while the Palestinian Authority does not have a social welfare system.
With a worldwide medical and economic crisis, assistance now is difficult to come by, though pledges of assistance have come from international bodies such as the World Health Organization, the World Bank and UNICEF.
Members of the Coordinating Catholic Aid Organizations of the Holy Land, which includes Caritas Jerusalem, Catholic Relief Services, the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, among other Catholic aid organizations, have been assessing the situation on the ground through partner organizations in order to come up with a coordinated plan of action.
“(This) does bring home to us our dependence on our environment and on each other, and how something so small we can’t even imagine, (like) this virus can disturb whole life on planet,” said Sister Bridget Tighe, general director of Caritas Jerusalem, which works under the umbrella of the Latin Patriarchate. “This brings me to increase my faith, not decrease it, because what else is there other than faith and trust in God and bringing people together. We must take care of each other, take care of the elderly and not let people be alone and lonely.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.