In a corner of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the tears of the Filipina Angèle Pernecita reveal the fervor which takes Jerusalem away at Easter. The temple, considered one of the holiest places in Christianity, closed for the first time in a hundred years on the Christian holiday in 2020.
A year later, Israel leads the global vaccination ranking – 54% of its population has already taken both doses of the vaccine, according to the New York Times. The success of the campaign allowed hundreds of the faithful, as well as Pernecita, already immune, to tread the cobblestones of the old town on Good Friday (2), in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion.
Inside the church, prayers rang out as they hadn’t been for months, and some devotees did not hesitate to touch and even kiss, with or without a mask, the Anointing Stone, a reddish limestone slab which, according to tradition, is the place where Jesus was embalmed before being buried.
In 2020, the 46-year-old housewife, who has lived in Israel for more than a decade, followed the masses on the internet. At that time, the Israeli government had just ordered the closure of sacred sites, in addition to schools and businesses, to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Thus, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed at Easter for the first time in at least a century.
“Today is like living again,” said Lina Sleibi, a Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem and who celebrated the religious holiday last year without going to church or meeting her family. “It was difficult, it was as if the city was dead,” says the 28-year-old woman who sings during masses in Belém.
Last year, only four religious climbed the Via Dolorosa, the path where Jesus, according to the Gospels, found his mother, fell, received help to carry the cross and saw women cry. From now on, the procession of a few hundred faithful, led by dozens of religious singing in several languages, has given life to this long artery which crosses the Old Town and its ancient alleys.
“It’s like we were in a grave ourselves last year and now we’re coming out of it,” said Angleena Keizer, a British pastor.
Although restrictions on the coronavirus are gradually being lifted due to the rapid vaccination campaign, tourists are still not allowed to return to the Holy Land. Typically, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gather at this time of year in the Old Town. In 2019, more than 25,000 people gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Palm Sunday, which opens Holy Week, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Bader Rabadi, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, is also happy to be able to spend the holidays without confinement, but he is waiting for the time when the country can receive his supporters from abroad. “Jerusalem is not ours, it belongs to everyone,” he said.
The situation in Israel, however, is not the same as in many other countries where vaccination campaigns are progressing slowly – in Europe, for example, only 4% of the population is fully vaccinated according to the World Health Organization. – which leads Christians to celebrate Easter under restrictions.
Italy, one of the European countries most affected by the virus, began strict containment on Saturday (3), which deprived families of reunion. In the Vatican, Friday’s Via Crucis was held in an almost empty St. Peter’s Square. It was the second year in a row that the procession commemorating the last hours of Jesus’ life has not taken place in the ancient Coliseum in Rome, since the modern tradition of Easter was reintroduced by Pope Paul 6 in 1964.
In France, new restrictions across the country came into effect on Saturday in an attempt to contain an explosion of cases that is bringing hospitals in the capital to the brink of collapse. In neighboring Germany, where the government revoked a lockdown that would be imposed at Easter, Prime Minister Angela Merkel asked the population to limit their meetings as much as possible.
In the United States, where more than 100 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, President Joe Biden has called on people not to “let their guard down”.