Jerusalem – Friars in dark robes and face masks walked solemnly through the empty streets of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem on Friday, marking an “extraordinary” Easter as worshippers are kept away because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The procession along Via Dolorosa in pre-pandemic times would be followed by thousands of pilgrims, retracing the steps they believe Jesus took ahead of his crucifixion.
But this year, the footsteps and prayers of the faithful have fallen silent, as flights are grounded and churches closed. Just a handful of friars were allowed to walk the traditional route through the rain-soaked Old City, passing souvenir shops whose doors were firmly shut.
“This time is extraordinary, we cannot compare it to any other time,” said Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to Jerusalem’s church leaders.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, was closed more than two weeks ago.
One of the most important sites in Christianity, the church is home to multiple denominations while the keys have for centuries been held by a Muslim family.
“I consider the Holy Sepulchre as my second home and it’s very hard to see it closed, especially during this blessed time,” said keyholder Adeeb Jawad Joudeh al-Husseini.
He told Al Jazeera the heavy wooden doors of the church were last shut during Easter in 1349, while a plague known as the Black Death raged.
With all churches closed, religious leaders are encouraging Christians to tune in to Easter services streamed live on Facebook or other websites. Some have drawn tens of thousands of viewers, with people checking in from around the world and leaving prayer emojis.
Christian communities internationally have been publishing prayer booklets online, while some priests have posted videos showing parishioners how to carry out the foot-washing ceremony at home.
Abu Nassar, who lives in the city of Haifa, said his family has prepared Easter cookies and they have been praying for an end to the pandemic.
“I’m 50 years old and this is the first time I’m not going to church during Holy Week, I feel mad and sad,” he said.
There are more than 10,000 registered coronavirus cases in Israel, with at least 90 deaths, while two people have died in the occupied Palestinian territories where there are more than 260 confirmed cases.
Both Palestinian and Israeli officials imposed tough measures weeks ago, including closing the borders to foreign visitors and shutting religious sites.
Israeli officials have banned people from travelling more than 100 metres from their homes, unless for essential journeys such as food shopping, with violators facing fines of up to 5,000 shekels ($1,400).
Earlier this week temporary measures were imposed for the Jewish holiday of Passover, including a one-night curfew to prevent large family gatherings which could further spread the virus.
In Jerusalem, only Jewish residents of the Old City are allowed to pray at the Western Wall, while the Al Aqsa mosque compound is closed. Muslim leaders have not yet announced whether the site will be open again when Ramadan starts later this month.
With tourism and religious life at a standstill, there are few people on the streets of the Old City. Heavily-armed police officers patrol the area in face masks, some wearing bright blue gloves, and carry out regular checks.
For Lucas Delattre, a French exchange student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, this is “one of the most intense Easters of my life”.
“Part of the reason I chose to come here to study was my Catholic faith,” said the 20-year-old, who had intended to fully participate in Easter ceremonies until the pandemic scuppered his plans.
Delattre has been following services online and dedicating more time to prayer, while his Christian neighbours offered him two pieces of Easter cake.
“Strangely enough, I feel as I’ve never been that emotionally and spiritually involved in the various celebrations” as now, he added.
Diana Kattan, an Arab Christian born in Jerusalem, said this year has proven to be a “blessing in disguise” despite feeling sad about the church closures.
“I believe that it has even brought us more together as a big family of faithful,” said the 42-year-old. “In the daily hustle and bustle of our normal life, prayer sometimes takes a back seat, whereas now it has united us in one heart.”
Although the large family gatherings and visits will be lacking, Kattan said the local church has offered moral support and she has been tuning in to the online prayers.
Catholic celebrations will continue over the next few days, while Orthodox Christians mark Easter the following weekend with the Holy Fire ceremony scheduled for 18 April.
While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is usually packed with people bearing candles, lit with a light which they believe appears miraculously from Jesus’ tomb, this year just eight representatives from the four Orthodox denominations will be present.
“Immediately after the service there will be a few clerics outside the church to take the Holy Fire and to deliver it to cars,” at gates to the Old City, said Abu Nassar.
Plans are in place for the religious relay to continue to Tel Aviv airport, he said, allowing the flame to continue its annual journey to Orthodox communities globally.
“There will be seven private planes coming to Ben Gurion airport to pick up the fire and take it to various destinations in the world.”