JERUSALEM — In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where Palm Sunday was observed on April 5, there were no pilgrims walking with palm fronds and olive branches.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all houses of worship in Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank are closed, and government regulations prohibit people from congregating.  

This was the first time since 1349, when the Black Plague was raging, that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed during Holy Week, according to church leaders.  

In stark contrast to the huge crowds that participate in the annual Palm Sunday procession, this year just a handful of priests walked through the Old City’s stone-paved alleyways, tossing olive branches they had blessed to local Christians forced to stay at home and watch from their balconies or courtyards.     

“This year, because of the new situation, we are trying to come to all the Christians in our Christian Quarter to bring these branches of olives, the sign of new hope,” Father Sandro Tomasevic, a Catholic priest at the Latin parish of Jerusalem, told Reuters.

While people all over the world are engaged in social distancing, the inability to pray communally is being felt especially in the Holy Land this month, when Easter, Passover and Ramadan all fall this year.

In addition to be barred from their holiest sites, Christians, Muslims and Jews will not be able to celebrate their holidays with anyone but the people they live with — if they live with anyone at all.

There are absolutely no tourists or pilgrims, which has led to widespread unemployment among Christians.

Every aspect of Holy Week — which Latin Catholics celebrate April 5-12 and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates April 12-19 — has been altered due to the virus. 

Instead of thousands flocking to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to take part in the magnificent “Holy Fire” ceremony, this year only 10 priests will participate in the Eastern Orthodox ceremony.

During the ceremony, a priest enters the Edicule, where Jesus’ empty tomb is housed, and emerges with a lit candle, the source of the fire considered a miracle.

Ordinarily, the flame is passed from candle to candle within the church, and later shared with Orthodox churches all over the world.

Father Jamal Khader, the parish priest of Holy Family Church, a Roman Catholic church in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the COVID-19 restrictions have been difficult. 

“Do you know how hard it is for a parish priest to tell people not to come to church?” Father Khader said. “It’s painful to have celebrations without the faithful.”

Ordinarily, between 30 to 60 parishioners attend his church’s daily Mass, and more than 200 come on Sundays. This week, the priests and two nuns celebrated Mass in an otherwise empty church.

The church, like other many other Holy Land churches, has been able to broadcast Mass via a local cable TV station and through a livestream on the internet.

Hundreds watch the remote liturgy, Father Khader said.

During Holy Week, four or five priests from local churches will bless olive branches and distribute them to Christians at home. 

It will be a far cry from what Christians are accustomed to.

“We always have local celebrations, but we also go to Gethsemane on Good Friday and the Holy Sepulcher for the Holy Fire in the presence of thousands of Christians from around the world,” Father Khader said.

The coronavirus situation has prompted local clergy to find creative ways to reach out to their flocks.

“The most important thing right now is how to live this time in a spiritual way,” Father Khader explained. “We are trying to stay in touch with people, to show them how to live this time spiritually in their homes.”

His church is encouraging everyone to watch the televised Masses as a family and is providing food vouchers and other assistance to the people who need them most.

Difficult though it is, the timing of the crisis is a natural time for spiritual reflection, the priest said.

“During Holy Week we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. It is a message of hope, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness. God will have the last word.”

Omar Haramy, director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, said Easter has special significance for Holy Land Christians.     

“For most Christians, the main holiday is Christmas. For us, it’s Easter,” he said.

The way Christians celebrate the holiday is “unique to Jerusalem,” Haramy said. “There are at least 13 Christian denominations here, and each church has its own traditions and celebrations, especially during Holy Week, when we go to a number of different church services.”

This year, everything is canceled, and online services “aren’t quite the same thing,” he said.

Although local Christians feel disappointed, the crisis has ignited an inner flame in their hearts, Haramy said.   

“Interestingly, the situation has created a new feeling with the community. On Palm Sunday, hundreds of people posted photos of their own personal processions in their own homes,” he added. “People stood in their gardens holding palm fronds or anything else that was green. There were family photos comparing Palm Sunday this year with Palm Sunday from last year.”

One of Haramy’s friends, who lives on the Mount of Olives, took a selfie in the street where pilgrims traditionally walk.

“He was alone on the empty street. It was very emotional,” Haramy said.

Difficult though the situation is, the faithful understand that the closure is for everyone’s safety.

“Our community’s spirituality is deeper this year. People are taking more time to reflect, to be thankful for what we have, to enjoy time with family” now that schools and most businesses and companies are closed.

Haramy emphasized that the challenges facing Christians aren’t unique. 

“Everyone here is being affected. Jews are celebrating Passover; Muslims are starting Ramadan. It’s affecting all of us.”

Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.