Israel’s Christian community holds limited Easter services

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter from their homes, Christian representatives in Israel sent a request to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow “limited” services. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ Tomb, closed its doors due to government restrictions as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. The holy site draws thousands of Christian pilgrims to take part in Easter festivities. So, the question is how will Christians in the Holy Land celebrate Easter?

Wadie Abunassar, Chairman of Media Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land, says the Christian community is following two calendars – the Gregorian calendar followed mainly by Catholics and Protestants with Palm Sunday on April 5 and Easter Sunday on April 12 and the Julian Calendar followed mainly by the Greek Orthodox which celebrates Palm Sunday on the April 12 and Easter on April 19. As of now gatherings of more than two people are banned including outdoor worship. Twenty people are allowed at funerals and only 10 at circumcisions.  According to The Times of Israel Netanyahu told Israelis to “pray only on your own.” But Abunassar is hoping for leniency with regards to the Easter season.

“They have requested exemption by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin asking for understanding between the two sides,” Abunassar says. “The church has expressed readiness to negotiate, but they are asking for some understanding that the number might exceed the  limit of 10. The churches don’t want to be perceived as violating the directives intentionally.”

Holy sites like the Kotel or Western Wall are practically empty with synagogues and churches closed to congregants, but many ancient religious rituals call for large gatherings, and Abunassar says cancelling prayers during Easter is unacceptable.

“In Easter season there are many processions with the participation of thousands of people. Now we have seen no processions in open areas,” Abunassar says. “We don’t see ourselves cancelling prayers. We may postpone celebrations and activities, but the prayers will take place.”

Photo: Patrice Worthy

According to Abunassar, most churches have cut down their participants by limiting them to a very small number of clergy, but he is concerned over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that is home to three different Christian denominations: The Greek Orthodox communities, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.

Christians stand in line to kiss the feet of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Photo by Patrice Worthy

“The main challenge in my eyes is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, in other places we can reduce the number to very few, and in some places less than five people,” Abunassar says. “In the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre there is a challenge of having three different communities that might have to celebrate in parallel, although not in the same room because the Holy Sepulchre is a compound. The number needed would probably exceed the number of 10. This is the issue discussed with the Israeli authorities and everybody is trying to find a creative solution.”

The majority of the prayers will be broadcast through live streams, but Abunassar says the faithful are not happy. He says in most churches the role of alter servant, or people who help the priest has been practically eliminated leaving priest to prepare all needed equipment for the alter before services. Abunassar says the churches were the first to comply with the COVID-19 restrictions even before the mosque and synagogues. He doesn’t expect many Christians to show up to ceremonies because 90% of the pilgrims that normally travel to Israel for the Easter season are not there, while the local Christians are  under quarantine.

“I don’t imagine people coming from Nazareth, Haifa or Bethlehem to walk in Jerusalem under these circumstances,” Abunassar says.

Abunassar says Easter is a major feast and “We cannot play with it.” However, the prayers will be reduced to the minimum number of people possible and will be broadcast live on tv and social media. Many churches have published the book of prayers on their websites so people can follow from home.

The ceremony of the Blessing of the Oil is postponed until May during the Feast of the Pentecost. The celebration brings together the head of the patriarch and all parish priests, but Abunassar calls it “mission impossible” to bring parish priests from all over Israel, Palestine, and Jordan to Jerusalem. The Holy Fire, a miraculous fire that descends on the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, is set for April 18.

Wadie Abunassar tweets the Holy Fire will be limited to eight clergymen on April 18

The ceremony involves various orthodox communities such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and smaller communities like the Syrian Orthodox. Right now, the communities are in talks with Israeli authorities regarding the restrictions. But as for now, the restrictions are still in place, but Abunassar hopes they can negotiate.

“In the Roman Catholic Church in Haifa they have two people and that is enough, but when we are talking about major festivities with three Christian denominations  present like at the Basilica of  the Holy Sepulchre and we need people broadcasting, so we might exceed the number of 10,” Abunassar says. “The church has concluded with all efforts the number still might be a little bit higher.”

About the Author
Patrice Worthy is a reporter at the Atlanta Jewish Times where she writes about Israeli politics, food, art and culture, ethnic Jewry and Jews in the Diaspora.