Holy Land Christians put their faith in the Resurrection during pandemic

(Photo: Courtesy of Rafi Ghatta)At the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Photo: courtesy of Rafi Ghattas

During Easter in Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa, the last path of Jesus on his way to crucifixion, has been deserted over Holy Week.

But the famous celebration of Holy Fire celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus will not be virtual like many of the Easter church services for people.

Jerusalem normally heaves with crowds and celebrations over the two weeks of Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations. Still, it has been quiet and deserted during Palm Sunday and Holy Week due to restrictions stemming from the deadly novel coronavirus.

Religious gatherings for all three of the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – are all severely restricted, and shops closed in the normally throbbing city where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Mousa Emil Jarjoui, president of the Arab Orthodox Club in Jerusalem, a scout leader, knows how to navigate through difficulty, even the physical distancing imposed globally by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jerusalem usually heaves with crowds at Easter. Here, a Palm Sunday march from the Mount of Olives in 2019, a procession in which the scouts usually play an active part.

"Each year, we Christians face obstacles celebrating Easter due to Israeli occupation and closures in the West Bank and restrictions for Christians entering Jerusalem, especially to celebrate the Holy Fire on Saturday, the Orthodox Easter," he said in a telephone interview.

His church members, who belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, are readying to celebrate Easter, which for the troops of scouts he leads is always an exceptional occasion despite the virus which has hit Jerusalem hard.

Scouts still doing duties

"This year, we have a much bigger challenge with coronavirus. Yet we will do our best to enter the city and have the scouts go around to put the joy and happiness into the lives of the Christian community in Jerusalem," said Jarjoui, who usually runs a tourism business, now shut down by the pandemic.

He said that Christians will on Saturday coordinate with the church to try to get the Holy Fire and distribute it 10 or 15 members of the scout groups who are their 20s and able to drive cars to try to distribute the holy fire.

"We will distribute it to our Christian community, to their houses," said Jarjoui with people not venturing out of their houses as they celebrate Easter with their immediate families instead of watching the colourful procession with the scout troops taking part.

"If possible, we are trying to bring the holy fire to their houses as part of our social responsibility. It is a very important day for us as Jerusalemite Christians. It's a long, long tradition that people like to bring the holy fire to their houses."

With the use of lanterns, the scouts will help communicate with the communities placing the fiery emblems in front of the houses without any physical contact with people, said Jarjoui.

The Christmas Hotel at Easter

He is a part-owner of Jerusalem's Christmas Hotel, which will have no tourists this Easter.

But staying in the hotel will be medical workers, many of whom come from the West Bank to work in Jerusalem hospitals and have difficulty coming and going to the Israeli side.

Fr Ibrahim Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate rued that this year there will be none of the crowds that generally throng the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with scouts adding to the colour at the church where Jesus is believed to have been buried.

"We are streaming services directly online for broadcasting on television and social networks," said Shomali, who said that only six priests had been allowed in the historic church.

For Rafi Ghattas, general secretary of The Youth of Jesus' Homeland Palestine, a Catholic youth group sees Christians in the Holy Land living the same now as Jesus's followers did 2,000 years ago.

"We remember as Christians that the followers of Jesus then were very afraid, even after Jesus was risen. Now we are living the same things as in Jesus' time; everyone is afraid and praying at home," said the 22-year-old student who recently graduated in media studies.

"Just as then, we are awaiting the Holy Spirit to come to this land so that this coronavirus and all the things that we are afraid of will end so we can continue our lives with our faith."

Using social media to pray

His youth group is using social media to communicate with one another, to pray and do all their activities, using social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the likes.

"The most important thing about this time is that we should all rethink our lives. Are we strong in our lives, or are we just small things in the universe? And what are we going to do with our politics?" says Ghattas.

Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land Jerusalem, said in his Easter message that amid the global health crisis of COVID-19, "we have again entered the tomb with Jesus.

"We are sitting still, waiting, and watching for what God has in store. As always, we are trusting in the promise of the Resurrection, even in the shadow of the cross. As always, we are trusting that love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death," he said.

And in their Easter message, the 13 patriarchs and heads of Churches of Jerusalem noted that in the face of the pandemic, the world faces fear, anxiety, and ambiguity, while many countries suffer loss and grief, with infected cases on the rise.

However, "The Feast of the Resurrection is a time of renewal of hope, restoration, and victory over all forms of death and destruction."

The church leaders say, "We believe that our God is the God of the living and not of the dead.

"The Resurrection is our assurance that even in the midst of death and suffering, God is there, and Christ's death gives us the victory."

(Photo: © Peter Williams)Christian Orthodox pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday, April 2, 2010.
Copyright © 2020 Ecumenical News