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’ final steps, while reciting prayers through loudspeakers at the Stations of the Cross. Another group carried a large wooden cross along the route through the Old City, singing hymns and pausing to offer prayers.
“We have to pray for those who can’t be here,” said Alejandro Gonzalez, a Mexican living in Israel. “Those of us who can be here have a responsibility to keep them in mind and to go in this Way of the Cross that they are going through as well.”
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.
“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.”
In neighbouring Lebanon, Christians observed Good Friday under a coronavirus lockdown and amid a severe economic crisis exacerbated by the massive explosion that demolished parts of the capital last year. Even traditional Easter sweets are a luxury few can afford.
“People are not even talking about the feast,” says Majida Al Asaily, owner of a sweets shop in Beirut. “We haven’t witnessed anything like this year, despite the war and other difficulties that we had faced before.”