Christians mark Good Friday in isolation

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Christians are commemorating Good Friday without the solemn church services or emotional processions of previous years in a world locked down by the coronavirus pandemic.

The chanting of a small group of clerics inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre echoed faintly through the heavy wooden doors, as a few people stopped and kneeled outside to pray.

The centuries-old church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, is usually packed with pilgrims and tourists.

Virus Outbreak Mideast Jerusalem Holy Thursday
A priest peers from a window in the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Ariel Schalit/AP)

In ordinary times, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world retrace Jesus’s steps in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. But this year, flights are grounded and religious sites in the Holy Land are closed as authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus.

James Joseph, a Christian pilgrim from Detroit, dubbed “the Jesus guy” because he wears robes and goes about barefoot, lives near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre year-round. On Friday morning he had the plaza outside to himself.

He said Good Friday has special meaning this year: “The crucifixion is the saddest thing possible, and (Jesus) felt what we feel right now,” he said. “But thanks be to God … He rose from the dead and changed the world on Easter.”

Virus Outbreak Vatican Holy Thursday
Pope Francis attends a Mass for Holy Thursday inside St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (Alessandro Di Meo/AP)

Instead, Pope Francis presided over a torch-lit procession in an otherwise empty St Peter’s Square, with nurses and doctors among those holding a cross.

Virus Outbreak Vatican Good Friday
Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Virus Outbreak France
Notre Dame cathedral is holding a special Good Friday ceremony in the landmark’s charred interior but it is closed to the public (Christophe Ena/AP)

But the event is closed to the public for two reasons: France’s strict virus confinement measures forbid religious or any other gatherings, and the cathedral remains too structurally unstable to let parishioners inside.

“We wanted to send a message of hope” through the ceremony, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit told reporters this week.

“The message of hope is especially important for our compatriots at a time when we are particularly affected by the coronavirus, which is sowing anguish and death,” he said.

Virus Outbreak Philippines
A crucifix in front of the closed doors of St Peter’s parish church in Manila (Aaron Favila/AP)

The annual procession of the “Black Nazarene”, a centuries-old statue of Jesus, through central Manila, has also been cancelled.

Churchgoers have been told to stay home and remember Jesus’s suffering through family prayers, fasting and by watching masses and religious shows on TV or online.

For Josille Sabsal, it is a test of faith. The 30-year-old Catholic missionary tried to replicate an altar in her home in the capital by setting up a laptop, a crucifix and small statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on a table.

“It’s different, because the priest is on a screen,” she said. “When the internet lags, the mass suddenly gets cut off and you have to look for another YouTube video.

“I miss that moment in church when you say ‘Peace be with you’ to complete strangers and they smile back.

The Rev Flavie Villanueva, a former drug addict who ministers in Manila’s slums, got special permission to celebrate Mass on Thursday for 73 homeless people in a college basketball court. They wore masks, stayed more than an arm’s length apart, and there was no singing.

He said he was sad to see the churches emptied out, but hopes it will help people to renew their faith.

“We are asked to go back and rediscover where the church in our lives first started, and that’s in the family.”

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