Christians mark second Good Friday of pandemic with fewer restrictions

Jerusalem holy sites open but vast crowds of past years are absent

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Christians in the Holy Land marked Good Friday this year amid signs of an easing in the coronavirus crisis, with religious sites open to limited numbers of faithful but none of the mass pilgrimages usually seen in the week leading up to Easter.

The virus is still raging in the Philippines, France, Brazil and other predominantly Christian countries, where worshippers are celebrating a second annual holy week under various movement restrictions because of 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 worshippers down the Via Dolorosa, retracing what tradition holds were Jesus's 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, was open to visitors with masks and social distancing required.

“Things are open, but cautiously and gradually," said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land. “In regular years we urge people to come out. Last year we told people to stay at home ... this year we are somehow silent.”

Israel has launched one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns, allowing it to reopen restaurants, hotels 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 campaign, but has provided only a small number of vaccines to those in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority imported tens of thousands of doses for a population of more than 2.5 million.

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

Pope Francis began Good Friday with a visit to the Vatican's Covid-19 vaccination centre, where volunteers spent the past week administering about 1,200 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to poor and disadvantaged people in Rome.

The Vatican City State bought its own doses to vaccinate 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.

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

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

Although a third lockdown “light” is being imposed on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron wavered on a travel ban for the Easter weekend, allowing the French to drive between regions to meet up with family on Friday.

The fire-ravaged Notre Dame cathedral is not holding a Good Friday mass this year, but the cathedral’s Crown of Thorns will be venerated by the cathedral’s clergy at its new temporary liturgical centre in the nearby church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

In the Philippines, streets were eerily quiet and religious gatherings were prohibited in the capital, Manila, and four outlying provinces. The government placed the bustling region of more than 25 million people back under lockdown this week as it scrambled to contain an alarming surge in Covid-19 cases, with a record 15,310 new cases reported on Friday.

The Philippines had started to reopen in hopes of stemming a severe economic crisis, but infections surged last month, apparently because of more contagious strains, increased public mobility and complacency.