Christians will celebrate Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this year after the storied church remained closed last Easter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, presided over Palm Sunday Mass on March 28 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a small group in the church and more than 2,000 people participating in an outdoor Palm Sunday procession.
More than half the population of Israel is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and authorities have relaxed some restrictions to allow small congregations to gather for Holy Week with social distancing measures in place, Reuters reported.
The church, which houses the tomb of Christ and the site of the crucifixion, was closed for Easter 2020.
“Last year was a terrible Easter, without people, closed doors. This year is much better, the door is open, we don’t have a lot of people but we feel more hopeful that things will become better,” Pizzaballa told Reuters.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed on March 25, 2020 amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic with no definite timeline for reopening, marking the first time in nearly 700 years the holy site has closed for an extended period due to disease.
Despite reopening to limited numbers of pilgrims during May 2020, authorities ordered the church close down again in July due to rising cases in the area.
Authorities in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, closed the Church of the Nativity in early March 2020 after four cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the town. The Church of the Nativity was built over the birthplace of Jesus Christ. All tourists were subsequently banned from entering Bethlehem. The church reopened in May with precautions.
The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed for an extended period was 1349, during an outbreak of the Black Death in Jerusalem.
The church is unique among religious sites as it is partially controlled by several different Christian Churches. The Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church each share control of the building, and other Orthodox Churches also celebrate divine liturgy at the site.
First consecrated in the year 335, the church has been closed for short periods of time in the subsequent millennia due to war or other disputes. In 2018, to protest a proposed tax increase on churches, the site was closed to the public for about three days before reopening.
Easter will be celebrated on April 4 this year for Latin Rite Catholics and May 2 for Eastern Churches using the Julian calendar— both dates are observed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.