Limited Easter Ceremonies in Jerusalem Likely to Be Broadcast Live Across the World

Church leaders in Jerusalem complain holy sites were not exempt from emergency restrictions in the same way as the Western Wall, push for final approval

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The Easter ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, in 2015.
The Easter ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, in 2015. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The heads of the Christian communities in Jerusalem have requested to hold limited Easter ceremonies and broadcast them live, despite the lockdown orders currently in place because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The National Security Council discussed the request on Thursday but the decision was postponed to the next session on Sunday – when the ceremonies for the Holy Week before Easter will begin. The request will most likely be approved.

The leaders of the Jerusalem churches have been more critical in recent days over the fact that Christian sites in the city haven’t been granted an exception from emergency orders in the same way that the Western Wall has.

The regulations approved by the cabinet on Monday banned public prayer, but did state that the chief rabbi of the Western Wall “was authorized to approve prayer in the open area at the Western Wall for 10 regular [worshippers], as far as is possible, who live nearby, at times and under conditions with the agreement of the health minister.”

Worshipers at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Ziegenberg

The churches also asked for a specific exception for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in light of the upcoming Easter holiday, which for Catholics starts on April 12.

On Tuesday, Farid Jubran, a lawyer for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, the Franciscan body that manages the Catholic holy sites in the Holy Land, sent a harshly-worded letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. “The report that the government intends on making an exception for the Western Wall and the Cave of the Patriarchs [in Hebron] and allow the holding of limited prayer services there, while the holiest site for Christians remains closed under a total ban on conducting ceremonies during the holiest period for the Christian world, is unthinkable,” wrote Jubran. “This is forbidden discrimination in its simplest meaning, and also an illegal restraint on the fundamental right of freedom of worship of a specific religious group on the basis of religious affiliation.”
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to visitors over a week ago. A few monks who live inside the church and monastery complex are holding limited prayer services there, but church leaders have stopped participating in them at the request of the police.

If they get the final approval from the security council, the churches are planning on holding masses and ceremonies in a limited fashion, with up to 10 people, including church leaders, along with a handful of monks and two cameramen who would broadcast the ceremonies live. Akiva Tor, head of the department for world religions at the Foreign Ministry, said they were making an effort to enable the churches to hold the ceremonies.

The Holy Fire ceremony conducted in Orthodox churches on Holy Saturday is considered the most important and holiest one, and this year falls on April 18.

The climax of the ceremony is when the Greek Orthodox patriarch takes the Holy Fire out from the Aedicula, the enclosed shrine encompassing what is thought to be the tomb of Jesus, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is then passed on to tens of thousands of believers outside the church, and sent on to churches all over the world. At least seven countries planned on sending planes to Israel to transport the fire this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

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