In empty churches, Orthodox Christians mark Easter amid COVID-19 restrictions

A handful of Eastern Orthodox priests held mass for the Christian holiday of Easter on Sunday in an empty Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem due to restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Eastern Christian rites mark Easter, the day Christians believe Jesus was resurrected after his crucifixion, on April 19, a week after the Catholic calendar.

Ordinarily, the church would be filled with faithful and tourists, but travel restrictions imposed in Israel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have prevented the arrival of pilgrims to Jerusalem for the springtime holiday and limited the gathering of worshippers at the church.

Easter mass was performed by a small group of clergy at the Holy Sepulchre, the site where it is believed Jesus was entombed. The square outside was empty, the church’s large wooden doors barred shut, but a few individual worshippers came to pray outside.

A day earlier a small group of clerics at the church celebrated the ancient Holy Fire ceremony, which normally draws enormous crowds as a flame is transferred to Orthodox faithful around the globe from within a chamber where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.

A priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Nazariy blesses Easter cakes in his church, which is closed due to the coronavirus, prior to delivering them to people in the village of Nove close to Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

In Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, held Easter services in an empty monastery in the desert, amid coronavirus restrictions that kept congregations from gathering at churches and monasteries across the country.

The services were held at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of Cairo known as Wadi Natrun. A few clergymen attended the services, which was aired on a Coptic Orthodox television station. The clerics were seen practicing physical distancing during the prayers.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, one the world’s oldest Christian communities, decided earlier this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries because of the spread of the deadly virus.

Christians constitute around 10 per cent of Egypt’s more than 100 million population, who are predominantly Muslim.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Christians on the Orthodox Easter in a video message on Sunday. Putin said the religious festival would strengthen Russians’ hope and faith because the resurrection of Christ was a powerful symbol of rebirth and a reminder that life goes on.

Russian authorities and clerics have urged Christians to stay at home during the Orthodox Easter weekend for their own safety, though a senior cleric urged police on Saturday to be lenient on those who still try to make it to church.

Globally, there are roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, primarily living in Eastern Europe, Russia and parts of the Middle East. 

A Lithuanian Orthodox priest and congregants standing well apart pray during the cakes and Easter eggs blessing ceremony at the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Saturday. (Mindaugas Kulbis/The Associated Press)

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