‘Like a miracle’: Israel’s vaccine success allows Easter crowds in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – On Friday morning, in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the limestone alleys of the Christian Quarter, it was as if the pandemic had never happened.

The winding corridors that make up the Via Dolorosa, along which Christians believe Jesus carried his cross to his crucifixion, were filled with more than 1,000 worshipers. In the covered market, the air smelled of incense and resounded with Christian hymns. The Good Friday procession returned, where the faithful walk the path that Jesus is said to have taken.

“It’s like a miracle,” said Reverend Amjad Sabbara, a Catholic priest who helped lead the procession. “We are not doing this online. We are seeing the people in front of us. “

Pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony and forced priests to perform services without the presence of parishioners. Now, thanks to Israel’s world-leading vaccine launch, religious life in Jerusalem is returning to normal. And on Friday, that brought crowds once again to the city streets, and a relief to even one of Christianity’s most solemn commemorations: the Good Friday procession.

“We are very lucky to be here,” said May Bathish, a 40-year-old chorus girl from Father Sabbara’s church in the Old City. “When you walk the same steps that Jesus did, it is the greatest privilege.”

For much of the past year, the pandemic kept the Old City eerily empty. Its shops, synagogues and churches were often closed, its alleys deprived of tourists and pilgrims. But with nearly 60 percent of Israeli residents fully vaccinated, the city’s streets vibrated again, even if foreign tourists were still absent.

“When it’s empty, it’s like a ghost town,” Ms. Bathish said. Now, he added, “it is a city of life.”

At the meeting point of the Friday procession, there was barely room to stand. Police officers prevented the new arrivals from entering from nearby side streets. Members of a group of young Catholics formed a circle around the bearers of a large replica of the crucifix, the centerpiece of the procession, to prevent its bearers from being pushed by a sea of ​​worshipers.

Many of those in the procession were Palestinians who became Israeli residents after Israel captured the Old City in 1967, along with the rest of East Jerusalem. Around 6,000 Christians live in the Old City, alongside Muslims and Jews.

“Walk behind the cross!” yelled a church official. “Behind the cross, everyone!”

Above the hubbub, Father Amjad asked his congregation to walk in pairs. “Two by two,” he yelled through a speaker. “Not one by one!”

Then the crowd slowly walked away, singing sad hymns as they proceeded along what Christians consider a re-enactment of Jesus’ last steps.

They stumbled along the Via Dolorosa, past the site where tradition says Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate, past where he was flogged and mocked, past shops selling Christian icons and crosses, ice cream and T-shirts.

They turned left and then right, over the places where Christians believe that Jesus stumbled, once, twice, three times, under the weight of the crucifix.

In the alley outside the Saint Simon of Cyrene chapel, protesters ran their fingers over an ocher limestone on the chapel wall. According to tradition, Jesus stood firm against the stone after a stumble. And so many pilgrims, over the centuries, have caressed the stone since then that its surface is now smooth to the touch.

Eventually, they arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which believers believe was the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and ultimately resurrection.

For some, the Good Friday procession had even more resonance than usual: its themes of suffering, redemption and renewal seemed particularly symbolic as the end of a deadly pandemic finally came into view.

“We have come back to hope,” said George Halis, 24, who is studying to be a priest and lives in the Old City. “Last year it was like a darkness that took over the whole land.”

For others, there was a theological importance, as well as an emotional one, to be able to meet again.

“All Christians are part of the body of Christ,” said Bishop Vincenzo Peroni, a Jerusalem-based Catholic priest who has regularly led pilgrimages within the Holy Land. “Being able to celebrate together makes it more visible.”

But for now, that union still faces limits. There are still restrictions on the number of worshipers at Easter services. Masks are still a legal requirement. And foreigners still need an exemption to enter Israel, keeping thousands of pilgrims away, at the expense of local merchants who depend on their businesses.

“It still seems like it’s not normal,” said Hagop Karakashian, the owner of a famous pottery shop in the Old City, whose family designed the neighborhood street signs. “The locals can celebrate, yes. But something is still missing. “

The mood among Christians a few miles away, in the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, was even less jubilant. Christians from the occupied territories can visit Jerusalem only with special permission, which has become even more difficult to come by during the pandemic. While the majority of Israelis are now vaccinated, the vast majority of Palestinians have not received a dose.

Israel has provided vaccines to more than 100,000 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, nearly all of whom work in Israel or in West Bank settlements. Palestinian officials have obtained around 150,000 more doses.

But Israel says it is under no obligation to vaccinate the rest of the Palestinian population, citing a clause in the 1990s Oslo peace accords that transferred health care tasks to Palestinian officials. Critics say it is still Israel’s responsibility to help, citing international legislation that requires an occupying power to oversee medical care for occupied populations, as well as a separate clause in the Oslo accords that says Israel must work with Palestinians during epidemics.

Either way, infection rates remain high in the occupied territories and vaccination rates are low, and that has limited the number of Palestinian Christians who were granted permission to enter Jerusalem during Easter this year. An Israeli government spokesman declined to reveal the final number.

“Without permits, we cannot come,” said the Rev. Jamal Khader, a Catholic priest in Ramallah. “It is a sign of the continued presence of the occupation and the limitations of movement.”

But the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ still provide spiritual food for a despondent population, said Father Khader, who is allowed to enter Jerusalem through his work with the church.

“We identify with the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday,” he said.

“So,” he added, “we found some hope on Easter Sunday.”

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