Christians will celebrate Easter with millions of the faithful staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, normally packed with thousands of worshippers during the holiday − locals and pilgrims from across the globe − was almost deserted this week leading up to Easter Sunday because of Israel’s strict anti-COVID-19 measures.
However, those who follow the timetable of Eastern Christianity, including most Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, employ the Julian calendar for religious purposes and will mark Easter on May 2.
Last year, church leaders urged their congregants to stay home to avoid spreading the deadly coronavirus.
Looking around the streets of Jerusalem, you would be hard-pressed to find foreign tourists wandering the ancient alleyways of the Old City.
Jerusalemite George Stefan told The Media Line he had never seen anything like this.
“Since last March, things have started to deteriorate. No pilgrims, no tourists. The place is like a ghost city, it’s empty.”
The tourism sector has fallen victim to the pandemic, and for fear of spreading the virus, international travel has been almost nonexistent.
With only days before Easter, the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have officially re-opened, but foreign tourism remains off-limits. The square outside stands empty and only a handful of people are visiting the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Israel has partially reopened its main airport, but not to the foreign visitors whose spending is a major source of income needed by shopkeepers who are struggling to survive.
These are extraordinary times, residents of the Old City say.
Ramy Marabe’ae, who owns a souvenir shop steps away from the church, says the lack of pilgrims and tourists has been disastrous.
“Things are very difficult. The Old City looks sad. Usually at this time, it’s full of tourists, but it’s empty now. Our sales are down 100%.”
A few doors down from Ramy’s place is 62-year-old Youssef Natsheh’s rug shop. He was hanging rugs outside his shop while lamenting old times. He says he only comes here so he can save his rugs from ruin.
“Our situation is very bad. We depend entirely on tourism, and the absence of tourists has hurt us. I only open my shop to get rid of humidity and ventilate it.”
Hundreds of thousands of visitors normally flock to the church each year, filling these alleyways, but during the pandemic the shops struggle to stay open.
But despite all the doom and gloom, there is a sliver of hope; life is slowly reviving as more and more people are vaccinated and local tourists start reappearing.