It is springtime in Jerusalem. The weather has finally warmed up; Jerusalem stones are beginning to dry out and shine again, after the dark, wet winter. April is also a particularly holy month in the city of Jerusalem this year. Passover, the Western and Eastern Easters and Ramadan all fall within weeks of each other, linked by the global struggle against the coronavirus. Usually at this time, the city is filled with faith and tourism, and the alleyways of the Old City are crowded.
But this month, few are outdoors enjoying the spring; the shops in the Old City are shuttered and the alleyways are empty. Synagogues, churches and mosques have been closed for weeks.
The police are out in full force. They always are during these holidays to maintain order among the crowds of hundreds of thousands that come to pray. But this year, they are out to ensure that there are no crowds, as Jerusalem remains under virtual lockdown.
Despite the sun, there is a pall over Jerusalem, especially in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. In telephone and Zoom meetings between Saturday night and Sunday, the government divided Jerusalem into seven zones—and put four of those zones—all ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods with high levels of contagion—under lockdown. Within each neighborhood, the lockdown is strict, and any travel between the zones is forbidden.
The annual Priestly Blessing, which takes place at the Western Wall Plaza, was to have been celebrated Sunday. The Priestly Blessing is an ancient tradition, revived by Israeli tourism and religious authorities in the 1970s as a religious-folk ceremony that also marks the celebration of Passover as one of the three pilgrimage holidays, when, during the time of the Temple, Jews were divinely commanded to come to Jerusalem.
Most years, especially on beautiful, warm days like yesterday, the plaza overflows with Jews from all over the country and all over the world. But yesterday, authorities allowed only tenmen, all in face masks and some in gloves, to stand at the foot of the Kotel (Western Wall) and their blessings were live-streamed to the internet world.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, was among those taking part. “Last year I was among 100,000; this year, unfortunately, far less,” he wrote on Twitter. I will pray that the world is spared further illness or sorrow from COVID-19 or otherwise.” Friedman wrote on Twitter.
Yesterday was also Easter Sunday, as celebrated by the Western Churches. Traditionally, it marks the culmination of a week of pious ceremonies, concluding on Easter, which is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the reaffirmation of the covenant with God.
Jerusalem is usually the heart of these celebrations, many taking place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, according to tradition, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The Church, which houses the Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian sects, has been closed for three weeks, like all places of worship in Jerusalem. According to Adeeb Jaward Joudeh al-Husseini, a Muslem whose family has been entrusted with the keys to the church for centuries, the Church was last closed on Easter in 1349, during the Black Death plague. (It was also closed just over two years ago, in protest over a proposal by the government and municipality to tax some church properties, but it reopened within a day.)
According to the AP, last year, more than 25,000 people gathered in the square outside the Church of the Sepulchre for Palm Sunday mass (which marks the day that Jesus returned to Jerusalem and was observed on April 5). This year, following instructions by the health ministry, only 15 members of the clergy were allowed inside the church, said Ibrahim Shomali, a spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The Vatican’s apostolic administrator in the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, held a special prayer at the Mount of Olives, blessing Jerusalem and the world.
This year, on the Thursday before Good Friday,the traditional “Washing of the Feet,” which commemorates Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, did not take place. And on most Good Fridays, tens of thousands of Christians walk along the Via Dolorosa (“The Way of Sorrow”), where, according to Catholic tradition, Jesus carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion. This year, only a handful of friars, wearing face masks and simple, long brown robes tied with a rope, walked past the shuttered shops.
And on Easter itself, justa handful of Christian leaders were allowed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After walking through the Old City, Pizzaballa, resplendent in his traditional purple robes, spoke briefly before entering the Church.“Easter is a time for life,” he said. “Despite the signs of death we are seeing everywhere, life will prevail, as long as someone is giving life out of love for the others. Happy Easter.”
Ibtisam abu-Deeb, 62, owns a small trinket and souvenir shop along the Via Dolorosa. Her store has been closed for weeks, and she does not feel much like celebrating. “We’ve been in economic crises many times here in Jerusalem,” she says. “And usually, we go to the Church to pray or to visit each other for comfort and strength.Now, all I can do is ‘visit’ my family by phone or on Zoom. But we can still pray to God. Maybe this is a test of our faith.”
As the Western Easter comes to an end, the Holy Week for those who celebrate according to the Eastern (Orthodox) tradition begins.
Traditionally, the week is filled with ceremonial processions and public rituals, but not this year. For many, the height of this week would have been on Saturday, April 18, when the miracle of Holy Fire would have taken place at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Holy Fire ceremony has taken place at the same time in the same place for centuries. According to Easter Orthodox tradition, fire comes down to earth and bursts from the stone on which Jesus lay. The climax of the ceremony occurs when the Greek Orthodox patriarch takes the Holy Fire out from the Aedicula, the enclosed shrine encompassing what is thought to be the tomb of Jesus, deep within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is then passed on to tens of thousands of believers inside and outside the Church, and then dispatched to churches all over the world on chartered planes.
At least seven countries plan on sending planes to Israel despite the pandemic, but almost no planes are landing at Ben Gurion airport at this time. According to Archbishop Madaba Aristobulus, speaking at a virtual study event organized by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue and the Window to Mount Zion, both NGOs dedicated to religious understanding, special, complicated arrangements have been made with the Israeli authorities. Due to current Israeli regulations, anyone landing in Israel from abroad must go into quarantine for at least two weeks, so this year, the religious authorities coming from abroad will not deplane; the fire will be taken from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by representatives of the consulates in Jerusalem, who will take it to the planes—all while maintaining the required 6-foot distance from others at all times.
“I have been going to the Holy Fire ceremony since I was a small child,” recalls Khatia Azaberzian, 48, an Armenian Christian housewife who lives in the Old City. “Sometimes, my family would even camp out in the courtyard of the Church, so that we could get in early and be close to the fire. To see the fire is to really understand what faith means. As the fire is passed from person to person, we say, ‘He is Risen’ and affirm our faith. I feel renewed every year. I cannot imagine what it will be like this Saturday.”
Yet Archbishop Aristobulus says, “On the one hand, it is sad that the ceremony will not take place as it usually does, and people will be sad that they cannot take part. But on the other hand, people will be able to pray in their homes, without all the external noise and events, and that is important, too.”
Ramadan, the pinnacle of the Muslim religious calendar, is scheduled to begin on Thursday, April 23, with its 40-day-long fast, followed by joyous meals (the Iftar). The fasting and self-denial are meant to lead to generosity, self-reflection and faith.
Like many Jewish and Christian holidays, Ramadan is observed by many Muslims who do not consider themselves devout. Traditionally, by this time of year, the streets of the Old City are filled with shoppers who buy sweets and special foods for the Iftar, while charity and civil-society organizations collect money so that the poor, too, can enjoy the meal.
The central prayers during Ramadan have traditionally taken place on the Haram al-Sharif (known to Jews as the Temple Mount), the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. But last month, in consultations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan (which controls the Islamic authority, the Waqf), it was decided to close the Mosque in an effort to try to stem the virus by limiting congregating in public spaces.
It is not clear if the Waqf will continue to keep the site closed, although most authorities assume that they will continue to cooperate with the health authorities.
Indeed, according to the Ministry of Health, the Old City, despite its crowding and poor infrastructure, has seen relatively low levels of infection and almost no tension between the police and Christian or Muslim Palestinians during this time, related to the illness or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.