Holy Week ceremonies in Jerusalem to proceed in limited format

Eastern Orthodox churches will still receive Holy Fire from Jerusalem.

Christian worshippers attend Easter Sunday Mass in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher Church April 21, 2019 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Christian worshippers attend Easter Sunday Mass in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher Church April 21, 2019
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli authorities will allow usual Easter-related ceremonies in Jerusalem to proceed, but with the restrictions put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, a Foreign Ministry source said Monday.
The various churches in Jerusalem have ceremonies and special prayer services throughout Holy Week, which for Catholics begins on April 5 this year, and for the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches on April 12.
The churches are normally packed for midnight mass on Good Friday and mass on Easter Sunday, but they will have to observer restrictions like the other holy sites throughout Israel, which are closed due to COVID-19.
One of the most complex ceremonies in Holy Week is the Holy Fire, to take place on the night of April 18 this year.
Orthodox Christians describe Holy Fire as a miracle, which happens the day before Easter each year. Before heading into Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Greet Orthodox Patriarch is checked that he does not have any way to produce fire. Then, he goes into the tomb by himself and comes out with fire. Normally, the fire is distributed among the thousands of people people gathered at the church.
This ceremony has taken place since the year 867, with evidence that it has happened annually, uninterrupted for six to seven centuries.
Then, some of the fire is put into special containers and brought to Ben-Gurion Airport to planes waiting to distributed it to Eastern Christendom via churches in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania and other countries.
The exact mechanics of the ceremony have not been worked out yet, the Foreign Ministry source said, because the Health Ministry may put more restrictions in place, but flights to bring the fire to Russia, Ukraine and Greece have already been arranged.
There will likely be 10-15 people in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher representing the different Eastern Orthodox churches, who will transport the fire to Ben-Gurion Airport with a police escort. The religious delegations from the different countries will not disembark from their planes, in order to avoid Israel’s quarantine requirements. They will receive the fire on the planes.
The entire Holy Fire ceremony will be live-streamed online, as well.
Another major Holy Week event is the Catholic Church’s parade on Palm Sunday, from the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. About 25,000 people usually take part in the parade, but not this year.
Thousands of Egyptian Copts escort their pope in Jerusalem during Holy Week most years, but there are no flights departing Egypt anymore, and Health Ministry orders apply to their churches even if they could fly in.
The Foreign Ministry source said the churches’ administration showed understanding of the situation, while maintaining their right to celebrate Easter.
The Jordanian Wakf has closed the Temple Mount to all worshipers. The Western Wall is outdoors and can’t be closed, but no staff is operating it and only people living within 100 meters of it may legally pray there, keeping 2 meters away from others.
Ramadan starts on April 23 this year, and the Temple Mount is expected to remain closed until then.
The Wakf instituted the closure of its own volition, heeding Israeli recommendations. An Israeli source involved in the matter reported that there was almost no pushback on the matter, pointing out that the Grand Mosque in Mecca closed, as well.
Israeli police remain posted outside the Temple Mount complex, with Wakf staff inside.