A view of the Holy Land as Christians look to Easter

This year sees cautious, masked celebrations at revered sites as virus vaccine brings hope

A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. The Western Wall (
The Cathedral of All Russian Saints in the grounds of the Russian Orthodox Gorny Convent in Ein Kerem last September. The Christian sites of the Holy Land were under varying degrees of restrictions and bereft of foreign pilgrims for a year.PHOTO: REUTERS
A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. The Western Wall (
The Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, last week. For the Christian faithful, the biblical journey and legacy of Jesus are written in stonework and monuments across the landscape, straddling modern political fault lines.PHOTO: REUTERS
A baptism ceremony by the Jordan River, near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this January.
A baptism ceremony by the Jordan River, near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this January.PHOTO: REUTERS
A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. The Western Wall (
A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. PHOTO: REUTERS
A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. The Western Wall (
A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. PHOTO: REUTERS
A baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the River Jordan near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. A priest leading a mass in the Good Shepherd Church in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, last month. The Western Wall (
The Western Wall (foreground), Judaism's holiest prayer site, and the Dome of the Rock (background), in Jerusalem in February.PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM • Seen from the air, the fragility of humanity as it must have been in the Holy Land in centuries past is plain to see - ancient monasteries clinging to precipices, tiny fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, deserts gnawing at the edges of towns.

For the Christian faithful, the biblical journey and legacy of Jesus are written in stonework and monuments across the landscape, straddling modern political fault lines.

But modern pandemics, like ancient plagues, are no respecters of political and belief systems.

For a year, the Christian sites of the Holy Land, like the sacred places of Judaism and Islam, were under varying degrees of lockdown or restriction and bereft of foreign pilgrims.

Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, was the first area in the occupied Palestinian territories to be forced into lockdown just before Easter last year, closing the Church of the Nativity. Other churches followed soon after, including Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre, built over the sites where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

"Death is stalking a lot all over the world," a despondent apostolic administrator Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa said a year ago on Good Friday, known to Palestinian Christians as Sad Friday.

All of last year, little changed and by Christmas, the by then elevated to Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pizzaballa still cut a glum figure as he arrived in a rain-soaked Bethlehem for a muted celebration in front of a tiny congregation.

Just before that, on Dec 19, Israel began a rapid Covid-19 vaccination programme that brought hope of a freer 2021. At least for Israelis, if not Palestinians, where the vaccine roll-out has been slower.

On both sides of the Holy Land, as the Christian calendar progressed from Christmas to Easter, the faithful began to turn out again in greater numbers.

And at the sites revered as places of Jesus' early life and miracles, there were cautious, masked celebrations. In February, beneath the Mount of Temptation, Jericho priest Father Mario Hadchiti said: "We have high hopes as believers living on this holy land, the land of prophets and saints, that we will overcome the pandemic and return to normal."

Early hopes that this year's Easter celebrations might be completely free of curbs proved overly optimistic. But at the start of Holy Week, the huge medieval doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre swung open to admit churchgoers.

On the spot where he had stood despondently a year earlier, a more upbeat, though still masked, Latin Patriarch emerged from the church flanked by Catholic clerics and worshippers before heading to the Mount of Olives for the traditional, albeit reduced, Palm Sunday procession.

"We feel more hopeful that things will become better," Patriarch Pizzaballa said. "The message of Easter is life and love, despite all the signs of death, corona, pandemic, whatever - we believe in the power of love and life."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2021, with the headline 'A view of the Holy Land as Christians look to Easter'. Subscribe